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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 Boundaries: 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.»

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The idea of the linear passage from tradition to modernity is replaced by the affirmation that modernity is defined by the diversity and multiplication of alternatives, 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 society was fragmented; today, on the contrary, modernisation seems to be taking us from homogeneity 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 universalisation 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 different: how to avoid getting lost, being dissolved in the powerful swell of globalisation that destabilises countries and threatens the plurality of their cultures.
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Even the integration process that globalisation imposes on some stirs up contradictions in its wake. So far as the European Community goes, it is still more of an economic than a political entity, as its countries are divided by a vast diversity 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. Conversely, 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 macrogroups of the North, the Pacific, and of Europe. The demands 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 effects that these two types of integration are having on identity movements are already visible. In Europe the question of stateless nations makes the headlines as they demand the right to reshape themselves on the basis of identities 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 market 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 paradox! Seeking international competitiveness, television companies increasingly combine scripts and actors from different countries, melding into the same telenovela a Brazilian or Venezuelan script, Mexican actors, and Colombian or Argentinean directors. The telenovela, which had become a
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4 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 folkloric 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 differences as similarities. Borders today are not only undefined but also mobile; they shift from one field to another, displacing 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 disappearance 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 interaction. As John Keane has indicated, an international public sphere already exists, mobilising forms of global citizenship. This is demonstrated by the existence of international human 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 exclusion. 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 quesCultural Decentring and Palimpsests of Identity

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tion 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?
From the topography of 'places' to the topology of sensibilities

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 simply to indicate a few areas where the overflow of the national and the breaking out of the city intersect the discourse about identity. The first such intersection points towards the relation between the crisis of the national space and the politicocultural mismatch between intellectuals and the forms of knowledge about the social. The relationship is far-reaching: 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 mediation. The task of the intellectuals was to be symbolic mewww.mediaciones.net

6 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 national 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, became 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 representation that affects social researchers and intellectuals: from where and in whose name do they speak today? What mediations 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
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it, not only because of the invasion of the private but also because of the fragility that is introduced by the fragmentation 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 representation 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 between 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 weapon. Namely, by making the city into a homology of its street-map, despatialisation makes its discourse one-dimensional in order to translate it into the instrumentality expressed 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, information. 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 becomes 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 transformation of places into spaces of flows and channels,
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8 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 interestborne 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 insecurity which is a cultural anguish and psychic impoverishment, is the most secret and undoubted source of widespread aggression. De-spatialisation also means decentring, the equivalence (and insignificance) of all places. This produces 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, despatialising 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
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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 technologies, and electronic networks that radically dematerialise 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 presented 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 tranwww.mediaciones.net

10 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 cinema 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 seventies, 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 electronic 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 country. 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 programmes captured by satellite dishes, feels more comfortable writing with a computer than on paper, and has a 'natuCultural Decentring and Palimpsests of Identity

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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 fragmentations 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, Spanish-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 uprootedness. 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.

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