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w w w . m e d i a c i o n e s .

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Cultural Decentring and

Palimpsests of Identity
Jesús Martín-Barbero

Translated by Philip Schlesinger and Nancy Morris

(In: Media Development Vol. XLIV, Nº1, WACC - The World

Association for Christian Communication, London, 1997 -
Paper prepared for the colloquium on 'Cultural Bounda-
ries: Identity and Communication in Latin America', 1996)

« My initial question is prompted by accepting the

challenge presented by the complexity of the
imbrications between borders and mediations that
secretly link the forms and movements of identity: From
where should we think about identity when its referents
and meanings, its territories and discourses, have the
fragile texture of a palimpsest: that text from which an
effaced past emerges tenaciously, if illegibly, between
the lines being written by the present? (…) Two places
seem to me to be strategic for thinking about the
ambiguous and paradoxical transformations of identity:
the nation and the city.»

The idea of the linear passage from tradition to mod-

ernity is replaced by the affirmation that modernity is
defined by the diversity and multiplication of alterna-
tives, the ability to associate past and future. There is
a complete change of perspective: it was once thought
that the modern world was unified and traditional so-
ciety was fragmented; today, on the contrary,
modernisation seems to be taking us from homogene-
ity to heterogeneity.
Alain Touraine

To abstract modernisation from its original context is

simply to recognise that the processes that shape it
have lost their centre, spreading through the world to
the rhythm of capital formation, the diffusion of
knowledge and technologies, the globalization of
mass media, the extension of formal schooling, the
dizzying circulation of fashions and the universalisa-
tion of certain patterns of consumption.
José Joaquín Brunner

The above passages sum up different points of view about

the de-centring of modernity, revealing the diverse scenarios
and the contradictory trends that criss-cross the question of
identity. While from the centre the focus seems to be on the
question of how to live with diversity, or, better, how to
make it liveable, from the periphery the question is differ-
ent: how to avoid getting lost, being dissolved in the power-
ful swell of globalisation that destabilises countries and
threatens the plurality of their cultures.

Cultural Decentring and Palimpsests of Identity


Even the integration process that globalisation imposes on

some stirs up contradictions in its wake. So far as the Euro-
pean Community goes, it is still more of an economic than
a political entity, as its countries are divided by a vast diver-
sity of languages and history. Nonetheless, it does tend to
create certain conditions of social equality and to reinforce
cultural exchange among, and between, its countries. Con-
versely, in Latin America, culturally united by language and
by long-standing and solid traditions, economic integration
is splintering regional solidarity, especially because of the
exclusionary insertion of regional groups into the macro-
groups of the North, the Pacific, and of Europe. The de-
mands of competitiveness between blocs prevail over those
of regional co-operation and complementarity. At the level
of the state, there is an evidently increasing acceleration of
processes of income concentration, a reduction in social
spending and a deterioration of the public sphere. The ef-
fects that these two types of integration are having on
identity movements are already visible. In Europe the ques-
tion of stateless nations makes the headlines as they de-
mand the right to reshape themselves on the basis of identi-
ties that have been diluted or undervalued in the course of
nation-state building. This leads to the public strengthening
of their capacity for cultural – particularly audiovisual –
production. Meanwhile, by contrast, in Latin America,
privately-sponsored initiatives to penetrate the global mar-
ket with regional audiovisual collaborations are diminishing
the recognition of that which is Latin American. This is part
of a growing trend toward the neutrali-sation and erasure of
the signs of national and regional identities. What a para-
dox! Seeking international competitiveness, television com-
panies increasingly combine scripts and actors from differ-
ent countries, melding into the same telenovela a Brazilian
or Venezuelan script, Mexican actors, and Colombian or
Argentinean directors. The telenovela, which had become a

strategic terrain for the production and reproduction of the

images that those countries have made of themselves and by
means of which they are recognisable by others, is being
economically and culturally cheapened every day, reduced
to a profitable recipe book of narrative formulas and folk-
loric stereotypes.

Nonetheless, the diversity of views and trends cannot be

read only in terms of oppositions, as these differences speak
at the same time of crossroads, complicities and mediations.
Between the fascistic nationalism of the Bosnian Serbs and
the ethnocommunist fundamentalism of [Peruvian guerrilla
movement] Sendero Luminoso there are as many differ-
ences as similarities. Borders today are not only undefined
but also mobile; they shift from one field to another, dis-
placing the meaning of cultural identities – ethnic groups,
races, genders – and of ideologies and political projects –
left, centre, right, liberal/radical, neoliberal/conservative –
confusing them and also using them as springboards. This
should be read neither in an optimistic key as the disap-
pearance of borders and the coming forth (at last!) of a
universal community, nor in a catastrophic key as a society
in which the 'freeing up of differences' brings forth the death
of the social fabric, of elementary forms of social interac-
tion. As John Keane has indicated, an international public
sphere already exists, mobilising forms of global citizenship.
This is demonstrated by the existence of international hu-
man rights organisations and NGOs which in each country
mediate between the international and the local. But there
are also fundamentalisms that, masquerading as policies for
economic modernisation or for the rights of native workers
over those of immigrants, reinforce social and cultural ex-
clusion. This is not to forget the perversions of the excluded:
communities and ethnic minorities that are entrenched from
New York to Paris, passing through Colombia's Pacific
Coast, in a perverse refiguration of racism. My initial ques-

Cultural Decentring and Palimpsests of Identity


tion is prompted by accepting the challenge presented by the

complexity of the imbrications between borders and media-
tions that secretly link the forms and movements of identity:
From where should we think about identity when its refer-
ents and meanings, its territories and discourses, have the
fragile texture of a palimpsest: that text from which an ef-
faced past emerges tenaciously, if illegibly, between the
lines being written by the present?

From the topography of 'places' to the topology of


Two places seem to me to be strategic for thinking about the

ambiguous and paradoxical transformations of identity: the
nation and the city. So much has been written about the
reconfigurations and convulsions of the national that it is
impossible to engage with that material without one's being
somehow redundant; a similar process has taken place in
recent years concerning the city. Thus my intention is sim-
ply to indicate a few areas where the overflow of the
national and the breaking out of the city intersect the dis-
course about identity.

The first such intersection points towards the relation be-

tween the crisis of the national space and the politico-
cultural mismatch between intellectuals and the forms of
knowledge about the social. The relationship is far-rea-
ching: the nation-state gives political shape to the modern
public sphere, whose constitutive narratives, the novel and
the newspaper, 'provided the technical means necessary for
the "representation" of the type of imagined community
which is the nation'. A century later, Gramsci explicitly tied
the organic role of the intellectuals to the idea of the nation
as a construction, a product of interpretation and media-
tion. The task of the intellectuals was to be symbolic me-

diators, simultaneously producers of ideas and educators. In

their own way – that is without the kind of autono-my that
the fields of thought and art came to have in Europe, where
these realms have always intersected with politics – Latin
American intellectuals assumed the following role: 'They
wrote for the people or for the nation. They wrote only for
their equals, scorning all publics ... They felt free before all
the powers; they wooed the powers. They were enthusiastic
about the great revolutions and they were also their first
victims. They are the intellectuals: a category whose very
existence today is a problem'. So, decoupled from the na-
tional space, culture loses its organic tie to the territory and
the language, which had been intertwined with the very
vocation of the intellectual. The scope of this decoupling,
which radicalized the movement of modernity itself, be-
came visible when the crisis of the legitimacy of state
institutions and of the constitutors of citizenship – of party
identities, the disarticulation between social demands and
formal political processes, and between citizen participation
and political discourse – became interlinked with the crisis
of the authority of knowledge of society, thematised by
Foucault, Geertz, and de Certeau. The unveiling of the
implicit structures of power, the historicity of knowledge,
the critique of objectivism and of cumulative conceptions of
knowledge. All of this is evidence of the crisis of representa-
tion that affects social researchers and intellectuals: from
where and in whose name do they speak today? What me-
diations do their knowledge and vocation maintain today
with the social subject? And how can these be represented
when the subject unified in the identity of the people or the
nation is today an exploded subject? The substitution of
those figures and categories – people, nation – for that of
the public displaces the problems but dodges precisely the
question of the identities that those figures referenced and
those categories represented. Thus what today is termed the
public both broadens the scope of the political and weakens

Cultural Decentring and Palimpsests of Identity


it, not only because of the invasion of the private but also
because of the fragility that is introduced by the fragmenta-
tion of cultural horizons and of the languages in which the
demands and conflicts are expressed. Intellectuals and the
social sciences must urgently take charge of accentuating
the abstract character of the social linkage that connects the
public into the new modes of symbolising and representa-
tion created by communication networks and information
flows. And today, it is by means of this new public space
that profound transformations of social identities, of the
legitimacy of political actors and of the representativeness of
intellectuals' affirmations come about.

The second intersection points toward the relationship be-

tween de-spatialising the city and reconfigurations of the
sense of civic belonging and identity. Rather than being just
an electronic fact, de-spatialising describes a political wea-
pon. Namely, by making the city into a homology of its
street-map, despatialisation makes its discourse one-dimen-
sional in order to translate it into the instrumentality ex-
pressed in the rationality of the information paradigm: that
model of communication whose conceptual and operational
axis constitutes the city as flow – traffic, the interconnection
and constant circulation of vehicles, images, persons, in-
formation. This is the basis on which urban planners seek to
regulate the urban chaos. Consequently, the fundamental
concern of urbanists today is not that citizens meet, but, on
the contrary, that they circulate! The imperative is no longer
to be assembled, but to be connected. Thus, the city be-
comes a metaphor for the whole of society; it is converted
into the 'information society'.

Therefore, de-spatialisation means that urban space does

not count except in having a value linked with the price of
the land that is determined by the flow of vehicles: 'a trans-
formation of places into spaces of flows and channels,

which is equivalent to production and consumption without

any locality'. With its historic materiality devalued, the
body-space of the city loses importance in favour of the new
value accorded to its time, 'the general regime of speed'.
Technological flow, converted into other more interest-
borne flows, devalues cultural memory in the majority of
Latin American cities to the point of justifying their erasure.
And without relating to those who grasp and acknowledge
its relevance, citizens feel a much profounder insecurity
than that engendered by the sharp rise in crime. This inse-
curity which is a cultural anguish and psychic impoverish-
ment, is the most secret and undoubted source of wide-
spread aggression. De-spatialisation also means decentring,
the equivalence (and insignificance) of all places. This pro-
duces the loss of a centre, of that feeling which converted
plazas and certain streets and corners into meeting places.
The popular intensity of the encounter and the danger of the
crowd made possible by the plaza are today dissolved by the
tools of power disguised as the requirements of speed in
linking and connecting flows. In exchange, the large- and
medium-sized cities of Latin America – now home to the
majority of the population – offer more shopping centres
every day in which peoples' encounters are functionalised to
the architectonic and scripted spectacle of commerce, de-
spatialising and consolidating the activities that the 'old'
modern city once separated: work and leisure, the market
and religion, elite fashions and popular fads. At the same
time, uncontrollable growth fragments and scatters the city
making it unliveable. From Mexico City to São Paulo, to
Caracas or Bogotá, Guadalajara and Medellín, the city that
was inhabited and enjoyed by the citizenry is reduced,
shrinks, loses its utility; and de-urbanises. In the face of the
brutal pressure of migration and the inability of municipal
authorities to slow the worsening living conditions of the
majority, inhabitants resort to rural survival strategies – a
'culture of gleaning' that comes to insert rural knowledge

Cultural Decentring and Palimpsests of Identity


and tales, temporalities and feelings into the apprenticeships

and appropriations that the poor bring to urban modernity.

The other face of the city's de-spatialisation is shaped by the

growth and increasing density of media, computer tech-
nologies, and electronic networks that radically demateria-
lise it: the mediated city becomes virtual. On the one hand,
the devaluation and even destruction of the spatiality and
different temporalities that made up the fabric of the 'old'
society demand the reinvention of ties of belonging and
identity, and it is to this demand that audiovisual networks
respond, 'effecting, according to their own logic, a new
representation of urban spaces and exchanges.' It is obvious
that what makes televised images and information flows a
force is not the power of technologies as such, but their
ability to catalyse, amplify and deepen structural tendencies
in society. As F. Colombo affirms, 'there is an apparent
imbalance of vitality between real territory and that pre-
sented by the mass media. The imbalances do not derive,
however, from the excessive vitality of the media, but rather
from the weak, confused, and stagnant relationship between
the citizens and the real territory'. This is exemplified by
Colombia, where 'the media live off fears', as they engulf
the communicative capacity that violence drives off the
street. The common theatricality of politics is moved to
television, which becomes a strange place where a divided
and torn country communicates without meeting in order to
exorcise the daily nightmare. Television is made into a
scapegoat on which to blame violence, moral vacuum, and
cultural degradation.

Between end-of-century media and fears we may see the

configuration of a new sensorium. This is quite different
from the one that Walter Benjamin espied at the beginning
of the century in the mediations of cinema alongside 'the
modifications of the perceptual apparatus that lives so tran-

siently in the traffic of a big city'. At the time that cinema

was catalysing 'the experience of the masses', it was as
though through it citizens were exercising their right to the
city. Today, on the contrary, we face the disaggregation of
social experience, the privatisation of experience that is
catalysed and consecrated by television. The shift from the
people who take the street for themselves to the public that
goes to the cinema or to the theatre retained the collective
character of the experience. However, the move from cin-
ema publics to television audiences signalled a profound
transformation: social and cultural plurality subjected to the
logic of disaggregation convert difference into a strategy for
getting ratings. As it cannot be represented politically, the
fragmentation of the citizenry is taken charge of by the
market. Television is the principal mediator of this change.

But the sensorium that the virtual city displays does not point
in a single direction: 'a family resemblance brings together
the diversity of screens that unite our experience of work,
home and play', especially for the new generation. It is
already some twenty years ago, when verging on her seven-
ties, that Margaret Mead wrote lucidly: 'Our thinking still
ties us to the past, to the world as it was at the time of our
infancy and childhood. Born and raised before the elec-
tronic revolution, most of us do not understand what it
means. The youth of the new generation, on the other hand,
are like the members of the first generation in a new coun-
try. We should learn together with the young how to take
the next steps'. It is in them that the new sensibilities are
formed 'detached from the forms, styles and practices that
define "culture", and whose subjects are constituted from
the very beginning by their connection/disconnection with
information technology (interface games)'. A generation has
learned to speak English by watching television pro-
grammes captured by satellite dishes, feels more comforta-
ble writing with a computer than on paper, and has a 'natu-

Cultural Decentring and Palimpsests of Identity


ral' empathy with technological culture. Faced with the long

memory but at the same time the rigidity of traditional
identities, the members of the new generation seem blessed
with a plasticity of the nervous system that translates into a
cultural elasticity, a chameleon-like ability to adapt to the
most diverse contexts and an expressive complicity with the
universe of the moving image and the computer. It is in
their imaginaries and their soundscapes, in their fragmenta-
tions and velocities, that they encounter their rhythm and
their language. And this is not only the case among upper
class youth. The sound and rhythm of heavy metal draws
together a subject that transcends class. From the solitary
Walkman listener to the band that makes music at home,
from the discotheque to the neighbourhood concert, Span-
ish-language rock loudly proclaims the experience and
sensibility of the new urban tribes : of magic and Christian
guilt, of machismo and the cult of the Mother. They are
amalgamated to the hedonism and the fragmentation of life,
to the vertigo of speed and visual aggressiveness, to the
aesthetics of the disposable, of moral anxiety and uprooted-
ness. The cultural orality of the majorities in these countries
thus reveals its utter penetration by, and its complicity with,
electronic visuality – and thereby reveals the disconcerting
hybridities of which new identities are made.