David William Foster. Buenos Aires: Perspectives on the City and Cultural Production. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1998. 232 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8130-1613-9.
Reviewed by Kristen McCleary (Department of History, University of California, Los Angeles)
Published on H-Urban (September, 1999)
David Foster's collection of essays on different forms of cultural production in Buenos Aires provides a novel glimpse into some of the texts which both form and inform the cultural geography of the dominant political, economic and cultural center of Argentina. Foster approaches his subject matter from within the postmodernist discourses, notably quoting Edward Soja's Postmodern Geographies at the outset, and pays special attention to the subaltern's interaction with the city. The essays focus on different texts (literature, photographs, films, and comic strips) which are pointedly "urban" in terms of either their content or the fact that the producer belongs to a marginalized urban social group.
This collection is culled from different epochs of Foster's own body of work - some chapters will be presented in other forms and collected essays - and is conceptually united by the introduction. Each chapter title suggests a broad thematic discussion, but the chapters are actually small insightful treatises of quite specific texts. Social scientists may note the absence of statistical data to back up some rather large statements throughout the collection. Conceptually, some of the essays are open to criticism because their overly broad introductions claim more than the quite specific discussions of specific texts can uphold. For example, the chapter "Jewish Buenos Aires" actually focuses on the work of two Jewish authors rather than a sweeping discourse on the history of this immigrant group as the chapter's opening suggests.
As a collection of thinking pieces on very specific films, novels, comic-strips, and photographs, Foster's volume contributes to the growing field of cultural studies on Latin America. These essays concentrate on the 1960s to 1980s and Foster admits that they do not portend to cover all cultural practices -- notably, sports and television are not his areas of interest. This exclusion of the "popular" (with the exception of the comic strip Mafalda, most of the texts under discussion are directed to an intellectually-minded audience) limits Foster's discussion of cultural production to the individual rather than the group audience. That is, by focusing on published texts (rather than broadcasted material or the urban arena of sports which is attended by a great number of people) Foster tells us more about the individual artistic production than he does about group reception. While Mafalda is notably the most widely generated contextual production of his essays, the degree to which many of the other topics can be seen as representative of, experienced by, or shared by Buenos Aires' urban society remains unclear. The collection of essays, itself, is directed towards an academic audience familiar with the Spanish language as Spanish text is included in the body of the essay while the English translations are included as footnotes at the back of the book.
The first chapter, "Mafalda: From Hearth to Plaza" examines the popular comic strip which ran between 1962 and 1973, written by Quino (Joaquin Salvador Lavado). Arguing that the world of Mafalda shows how an adult worldview is formed in terms of a relationship with the city, Foster provides close-up examinations of a handful of the strips which deal with urban institutions and spaces. Contrasting Mafalda with Charles Schultz' Peanuts - two comic strips which Foster feels are often erroneously compared by academics - he shows how the former comic strip demonstrates the interaction between "fully socialized subjects (the adults) and those that are still on the margins of social institutions in their status as a general social class of children." Foster argues that Schultz' characters are either wholly innocent (Charlie Brown) or cynical in an adult way (Lucy).
The discussion of Mafalda is thoroughly engaging when Foster begins to focus on specific strips which treat the socialization and, assumably, urbanizing experiences which both children and adults undergo in Mafalda. He demonstrates the "real world" aspects of the comic strip, as well, in that, unlike Peanuts, the characters interact in the urban spaces of the city, defining plaza and street as well as home as predominant spaces which the comic strips depicts. Unfortunately, this chapter is a bit under-illustrated as only five of the many comic strips Foster discusses are included.
The second chapter, "Theater and Urban Culture" focuses on three plays each written under a different period of Argentine political rule. The first two were written under different epochs of military dictatorship (Roberto Cossa's La Nona during the military dictatorship from 1976 to 1983 and Ricardo Talesnik's La Fiaca (The Dumps) written in 1967 under the Ongania regime) and the third, Roberto Bartes'Postales Argentinas, under the burgeoning re-democratization era begun in 1983. Foster concentrates on language in his discussion of all of these plays noting the presence of cocoliche (the hybridization of Italian and Spanish) as a social impact which late-nineteenth century immigration left on the middle classes of Buenos Aires. Foster argues for the importance of language in defining Buenos Aires for "language is an overwhelming social index, and the fact that theater is principally a spoken cultural medium means that cultural identity enters in by the mere articulation of dialogue in the theater" (page 36). Foster provides a bit of an historical context to his discussion of the "science fiction" sainete (short comic-laden plays depicting the immigrant life of Buenos Aires in the beginning of the twentieth century) but this contextualization is missing almost wholly from the first two plays. Foster discusses early Argentine playwrights such as Vacarezza in terms of the play Postales but the strong linguistic links with Cossa and Talesnik's works are not as clearly indicated.
The next three chapters deal with issues of gender and the construction of gender identity especially in terms of urban spaces. Chapter three, "Tango and Urban Sexual Regulation," discusses the ways in which the private-themes (love, betrayal, and loss) of the tango are performed and articulated publicly thereby reinforcing masculine urban space in a deliberately "heterosexist" manner. Foster argues that there can be no mistaking the heterosexist hegemonity of the tango since lyrics deliberately refer to women betraying men and the tango re-inforces the patriarchal hierarchy of men's domination of women. Foster discusses specific tango lyrics to argue that the cafe society which one specific tango refers to reinforces masculinity by dealing with masculine spaces and topics (cafes and prostitution, for example). The chapter ends with a discussion of Jorge Luis Borges' texts, especially poems, and the ways in which he treated the tango and its accompanying themes of masculinity.
The fourth chapter, "Homoeroticism and Contested Space," begins by generally discussing the private / public nature of sexuality in Latin America. Foster argues that the gay and lesbian rights movement in Argentina has the question of public visibility high on their agenda. This is especially true in the aftermath of the dictatorships of the 1970s and early 80s in which anything deemed to be a manifestation of homosexuality was persecuted. Foster briefly discusses the codes of masculinity set forth in the national literature such as Domingo Sarmiento's Facundo and Esteban Echeverria's El Matadero. Homoeroticism in a macho culture constructs its own set of complications, he convincingly argues. On the one hand, homosexual activities are repressed at the political level, yet on the other hand, the homosocial institutions of military training and all-male schools encourage different forms of male-bonding to occur. This chapter closes with a detailed examination of the way in which film treats themes of homosexuality in public spaces. Enrique Dawi's 1985 film, Adios, Roberto, tells the story of a man who leaves his wife after he realizes he is gay. Foster focuses on the public spatialization of Marcel's sexual drama including references to the military and this institution's ensuing homophobia. The movie, he claims, serves to legitimize visibility for homoerotic desire in the urban space of Buenos Aires much as the gay and lesbian movement struggles to do on a different plane of cultural production.
The fifth chapter, "Buenos Aires: Feminine Space" focuses on the literary production surrounding Eva Peron in recent years: Abel Posse's La pasion segun Eva, Alicia Dujovne Ortiz' biography, and Tomas Eloy Martinez' Santa Evita: Novela which focuses on the afterlife trajectory of Evita's embalmed and highly politicized corpse. Foster convincingly argues that Evita, much like the mothers of the Plaza de Mayo later, took over masculine public spaces and used the city to create spaces of power which she controlled.
The introduction to this chapter, in which Foster enumerates the eight ways in which women enjoy greater public presence in Buenos Aires than elsewhere in Latin America, is somewhat problematic and under-substantiated. Nowhere, for example, does Foster address the ways in which women's interactions throughout the city on a daily basis may be colored by the piropos (flirtatious remarks) which often follow single women on the streets of Buenos Aires. His argument that the Argentine woman is legendary for her strength of character is admittedly overly general and somewhat unexpected in a collection which is so sensitive to theoretical issues elsewhere. Finally, while Foster argues that women represent "a high incidence of small and large business ownership in Argentina" ( page 104) he does not provide any data to strengthen his claims. Women in Argentina, after all, do not occupy more than 10% of management positions according to La Nacion (June 13, 1999). Argentine women may have a great deal more freedom than women do in other Latin American cities, but that freedom remains limited. The literary analysis of this chapter, that is to say, is insightful and thought-provoking, but the general claims Foster puts forth at the beginning of the chapter are too general and not entirely convincing.
The sixth chapter "Jewish Buenos Aires" focuses on literary production by Jewish writers. Foster argues that Jews in Buenos Aires are the privileged sub-altern in that they are economically integrated into the world of Buenos Aires yet still remain socially apart, the "other." Foster shows how Mario Szichman's 1981 novel A las 20:25, la senora entro en la inmortalidad focuses on the division between Peronism and the Jewish community. The novel tells the tale of a Jewish woman who dies at the exact time and day that Evita does. As a result of the massive mourning for Evita, it is virtually impossible for the Jewish family to properly bury their own within the 24 hours necessitated by Talmudic law. The novel shows how the Catholic society unwittingly prevents the family's compliance with their own religious traditions. Foster then examines the writings of Alicia Steimberg who "hasn't written to be identified as a Jewish writer." Foster's argument that her writing is "marked by a sense of sacrilegious irony, irreverence and smart-girl sassiness that can be generally identified as Jewish - and in this case, feminist Jewish, point of view" (page 141) puts Foster on slippery territory. What are, one wonders, the identifying characteristics of Jewish humor or prose? The final text analyzed here is Paula Varsavky's Nadie alzaba la voz a novel about the death of a Jewish professor of physics who is dismissed by the military dictatorship. The story is told by his daughter who struggles to define her own cultural identity as an exiled Jewish-Argentine woman living in New York.
The seventh chapter, "The Dirty Realism of Enrique Medina" examines the works of the writer who had the largest inventory of books banned under the military dictatorship from 1976 to 1983. Medina's focuses on the urban proletariat and characters with little social agency and he makes no attempt to "pretty up" the picture of daily life in Buenos Aires which makes his writings eligible for the category of "dirty realism." Medina's stories often focus on the language and violence which define sub-altern living in the poorer or working class barrios of Buenos Aires. For example one story, The Crime in Boedo, "follows the interior discourse of an individual jailed for killing the mother and sister of the woman he suspects of being unfaithful to him" (p. 163). Medina's own writings are devoted almost exclusively to the urban context and Foster calls him the most important urban writer in Argentina at the present moment. Much of the chapter examines the true life figure, Jose Maria Gatica, who was the championed prize fighter of the Perons and also the subject of a book by Medina. Once famous, the now-defeated prize fighter ended his life under the wheels of a colectivo (bus) as he stumbled in a drunken stupor onto the streets of Buenos Aires.
The eighth chapter, "Sara Facio as Urban Photographer" examines the role of the female photographer in Buenos Aires by focusing on selected works from her publications: Retratos 1960-1992 and Humanaria a work produced in collaboration with Alicia D'Amico and which includes an essay by Julio Cortazar published in 1976 - two days after the military dictatorship assumed power - which deals with the mentally ill. Foster sees Facio's work as inherently urban since she centers on individuals who are either identified with the city of Buenos Aires or who are anonymous everymen/everywomen portrayed as integral elements of the city as a human space.
In the first half of the chapter, Foster analyzes Facio's works which center on portraits of famous women: actress Norma Aleandro, journalist, Maria Elena Walsh, and film director Maria Luisa Bemberg. The analyses of the photographs are vivid and insightful. Foster reveals many complex layers of Facio's photographs and brings the theme of urbanism and urban women to a great denouement with this closing chapter. His discussion of the anonymous everymen in urban Buenos Aires is equally riveting as is the close-up examination of the institute for mentally ill women which provides the subject matter for Humanario. It would have been interesting to have seen a discussion of the contrast between her photos of female portraits which are included in Foster's essays alongside of her series of portraits of Argentine writers including Julio Cortazar and other prominent figures. Foster argues that the fact that a member of a sub-altern group is in charge of controlling the gaze - in this case a female photographer, the cultural production is thereby involved with subaltern identity. He discusses her portraits of urban men but not of well-known men which would have provided an interesting counterpoint to her depictions of famous women and his overall definition of "urbanity." For example, the portrait she took of Quino next to a photograph of his comic strip character, Mafalda, would have put a circular ending to the collection of essays which at times is more disjointed than necessary.
While Foster ostensibly focuses on urban cultural production, many of the essays are thematically linked by an analysis of the images and meanings of masculinity created by an immigrant, patriarchal society which also experienced many years of military dictatorship. The discussion of gender construction and the overlaps of male/masculine authority within the urban realm are perhaps the more enlightening aspects of this collection of essays. Foster reveals many complex layers in Buenos Aires' society of the last 30 years through his examination of the marginal and marginalized figures of Argentina. While the collection is weakened by overly general introductions for each chapter, the theoretical and specific discussions of cultural production are highly evocative. Finally, Foster's liminal examination of the effects of the military dictatorship on the socio-cultural fabric of porteno life paves the way for other scholars to explore this theme more fully.
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Kristen McCleary. Review of Foster, David William, Buenos Aires: Perspectives on the City and Cultural Production.
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