Lisa Blackmore. Spectacular Modernity: Dictatorship, Space, and Visuality in Venezuela, 1948-1958. Pitt Illuminations Series. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2017. Illustrations. 240 pp. $28.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8229-6438-4.
Reviewed by Marcus Oliver Golding (University of Texas Austin)
Published on H-War (May, 2020)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)
Some Venezuelans still remember fondly the decade of military rule that gripped the country between 1948 and 1958. These years were marked by staggering developmental projects and public works financed by oil revenue and designed to make Venezuela and its inhabitants modern. Bridges, hotels, parks, highways, and shopping malls were just a few of the markers of modernity that dotted the landscape of the capital city, Caracas. It was also a period of political repression, torture, and widespread restrictions of rights and freedoms. How is it that a regime that repressed its own population still remains popular in the public imaginary as the quintessential example of the developmentalist path that Venezuela should follow to finally become modern? How is that modernity came to be associated with architecture and infrastructure and not with democracy and political liberties? Lisa Blackmore’s Spectacular Modernity: Dictatorship, Space and Visuality in Venezuela, 1948-1958 masterfully bridges the existing dissonance between politics and aesthetics in the English-speaking literature by calling for a mode of cultural inquiry that addresses these spheres simultaneously as a way to show the role that modernist aesthetics and monumental buildings had in buttressing military rule.
Blackmore’s work draws heavily from visual theory to analyze how the government deployed architecture as a political regime that would enact modernity before locals. Venezuelans became spectators and performers of this modernizing thrust, making democracy irrelevant. She conceptualizes this instrument of rule as a form of “spectacular modernity” (p. 19). The book covers more than the narratives and technologies of visuality used by the military junta to project a vision of national progress. It addresses key infrastructural projects, such as the Caracas-La Guaira bridge or the never finished Helicoide mall, and examines corporations’ periodicals and magazines and their joint efforts with the state to promote a vision of capitalist development. Finally, the author studies the role of citizens in performing modernity through their participation in national parades, beauty pageants, and military-style marches and their role as growing consumers of cars, fancy clothing, and other finished goods.
The New National Ideal became the ideological cornerstone of the modernization project implemented by President Marcos Pérez Jiménez. It made political legitimacy dependent on the physical transformation of the environment, which would discharge on the Venezuelan people behavioral modifications in line with a vision of progress based on material betterment for the national territory and its society. Blackmore posits that part of the alluring and lasting force of the infrastructural legacy of the military regime resides in the intersection between the construction of monumental structures and the pictorial material commissioned by the state to promote these public works. This combination, she argues, helps us to conceive of architecture and archives as similar technologies of rule tasked with writing and preserving the official history of the 1950s. Buildings and documents conspired to render the national territory into a repository of monumental structures that indexed exponential development. For example, by naming some of the modern housing blocks according to specific dates, such as November 24th (when the military coup happened) or December 2nd (date of the fraudulent election of Pérez Jiménez), the military junta recorded visually the political events that permitted the materialization of modernity in the national landscape. In this goal, the government was not alone.
Corporations, specifically US enterprises, also supported spatial transformation and industrialization as catalysts for national prosperity. Through magazines, newspapers, and radio, they promoted a notion of progress premised on capital accumulation as the precondition to stability and progress. As Blackmore notices, oil companies played a pioneering role in reifying foreign culture as a marker of development. Their oil camps and recreational facilities served as manifestations of modernity long before the beginning of the military regime in 1948. To be sure, foreign corporations and the military regime had slightly different agendas. One advocated for the free interplay of market forces; the other focused on a state-led developmentalist model. However, both defended the same ideals of promoting capitalist development through the transformation of the environment. Putting occasional economic policy discrepancies aside, the firms’ media apparatus endorsed the connection between infrastructure, development, and social welfare that the government constantly promoted in the visual realm. Blackmore refers to this joint effort to craft dominant narratives about the meanings associated with a particular territory as “national branding” (p. 76). The awe the government public works generated among the people was intended not only to dazzle but also to demobilize and silence dissident voices.
Blackmore addresses how the military equipped trade union centers with top-notch entertainment infrastructure as a way to depoliticize working-class struggles and shift attention toward recreation and leisure. To understand the awe-inspiring effect of visuality deployed by Pérez Jiménez, the author expands on the concept of spectacle and draws from the ideas of the French theorist Guy Debord, who posited that the spectacular images circulated by the mass media stunt the capacities of viewers for political contestation or revolutionary uprising. The military junta numbed citizens’ political instincts not only through the gaze of marvelous buildings, such as the Humboldt Hotel sitting at the top of the Avila Mountain and overseeing the city or the Paseo Los Proceres, an extensive promenade commemorating national heroes, but also by actively engaging them with these landmarks of modernity. The most conspicuous example of people “enlisting” in the government’s modernity project was participation in the Semana de la Patria (Week of the Fatherland) in which choreographed activities were carried out by ordinary citizens to celebrate nationalism and its infrastructural manifestation in the physical landscape. Venezuelans followed a carefully crafted script that casted them in the role of performers of spectacle and progress offering an illusion of popularity and legitimacy for military rule. However, Blackmore consistently reminds us that the particular modernity Pérez Jiménez sought to enact upon the country’s geography came at a staggering human cost.
In tandem with government policies purportedly oriented toward the well-being of the population and its social improvement coexisted more sinister intentions that sought to discipline those who resisted a visual project bereft of political freedoms. The state actively persecuted politicians and dismantled nongovernment-controlled unions. Not coincidentally the failed oil strike of May 1950 was met with unrelenting repression. Shortly after that the military regime opened a labor camp in Guasina, an island in the distant province of Delta Amacuro where political prisoners were held in subhuman conditions. In synthesis, the author argues that the New National Ideal comprised both liberating promises and subjugating thrusts. As a reminder of the Janus-faced nature of modernity of twentieth-century Latin America, national projects often entailed a blend of material improvement with political repression and social and ecological destitution in the quest for modernization.
Blackmore’s book is a superb contribution to the literature on visual culture as a technology of rule. She uses a wide variety of visual and written primary sources from magazines and posters to maps and written records of government agencies and private corporations. The book is a crucial read to understand the fascination of Venezuelans for fantasies of instant modernity enabled by a petroleum economy and conjured by the power of what Fernando Coronil termed as “the magical state” (The Magical State: Nature, Money, and Modernity in Venezuela ).
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-war.
Marcus Oliver Golding. Review of Blackmore, Lisa, Spectacular Modernity: Dictatorship, Space, and Visuality in Venezuela, 1948-1958.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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