Masculine/Feminine: Practices of Difference(s)

Masculine/Feminine: Practices of Difference(s)

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Nelly Richard is one of the most prominent cultural theorists writing in Latin America today. As a participant in Chile’s neo-avantgarde, Richard worked to expand the possibilities for cultural debate within the constraints imposed by the Pinochet dictatorship (1973–1990), and she has continued to offer incisive commentary about the country’s transition to democracy. Well known as the founder and director of the influential Santiago-based journal Revista de crítica cultural, Richard has been central to the dissemination throughout Latin America of work by key contemporary thinkers, including Néstor García Canclini, Jacques Derrida, Fredric Jameson, and Diamela Eltit. Her own writing provides rigorous considerations of Latin American identity, postmodernism, gender, neoliberalism, and strategies of political and cultural resistance.

Richard helped to organize the 1987 International Conference on Latin American Women’s Literature in Santiago, one of the most significant literary events to take place under the Pinochet dictatorship. Published in Chile in 1993, Masculine/Feminine develops some of the key issues brought to the fore during that landmark meeting. Richard theorizes why the feminist movement has been crucial not only to the liberation of women but also to understanding the ways in which power operated under the military regime in Chile. In one of her most widely praised essays, she explores the figure of the transvestite, artistic imagery of which exploded during the Chilean dictatorship. She examines the politics and the aesthetics of this phenomenon, particularly against the background of prostitution and shantytown poverty, and she argues that gay culture works to break down the social demarcations and rigid structures of city life. Masculine/Feminine makes available, for the first time in English, one of Latin America’s most significant works of feminist theory.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822385714
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 04/28/2004
Series: Latin America in Translation
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 108
File size: 213 KB

About the Author

Nelly Richard is a renowned Latin American cultural studies theorist. Born in France and a graduate of the Sorbonne, Richard has lived in Chile since 1970. Among her many books are La estratificación de los márgenes and Políticas y estéticas de la memoria.
Silvia R. Tandeciarz is Assistant Professor of Hispanic Studies at the College of William and Mary. She is the author of Exorcismos, a book of poetry.
Alice A. Nelson is a Member of the Faculty at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. She is the author of Political Bodies: Gender, History, and the Struggle for Narrative Power in Recent Chilean Literature.

Read an Excerpt


Practices of Difference(s)
By Nelly Richard

Duke University Press

ISBN: 0-8223-3314-7

Chapter One

Spatial Politics: Cultural Criticism and Feminist Theory

The forms through which culture speaks using words and images-the systems of signs that communicate culture and the webs of messages that socially transmit it-embody and defend interests prejudicially linked to certain hegemonic representations, reinforcing lines of power, dominance, and authority.

Cultural ideologies render invisible (naturalize) the constructions and mediations of signs, making us believe that words and images speak for themselves rather than for the interposed and concerted voices of the social discourses historically plotting their meanings. The first gesture of critical resistance to the false assumption of signs' neutrality, then, is to expose the codes that erase cultural ideologies' signifying work.

Cultural criticism functions precisely by revealing the imbrication of the parts and interlocking gears that make discursive mechanisms function. It works by demonstrating that they all are moveable and interchangeable, and that-contrary to what is decreed by the immobilizing and demobilizing weight of traditions and conventions tied to the defense of the status quo's integrity-the voices of these discourses can be altered and replaced. Cultural criticism seeks to suspend the sentence that condemns signs to remaining static orroutine; instead it propagates the microzones of agitation and commotion that unsettle the normative equilibrium of what is dictated by habit or convenience, and thereby creates disturbances in the semiotic organization of messages that produce and reproduce institutional consent. This criticism uses the sociocommunicative materiality of signs as a stage from which to question and intervene in the modalities of discourse, both the representations of power and the powers of representation. In Barbero's words: "It is not only a matter of power utilizing discourse as weapon, sophism, or blackmail, but rather of discourse forming an integral part of the plot of violence, control, and struggle that constitutes the practice of power."

In order to dismantle these forms of power, cultural criticism fixes its gaze on those deviating practices, on those movements in open dispute with tendencies legitimated by the conformist and recuperative vocabularies of academic fetishism, of aesthetic commercialism or political ideologism. The task of cultural criticism-which reaps its reflexive and combative energy from the struggles of alternative practices to configure the emergent dynamics of the new-is to empower the destabilizing effects of conflicting codes and representations emerging, in linguistic rebellion, from new sociocultural subjectivities.

Another task of this criticism is the antihegemonic struggle against the division and parceling out of cultural power. This power follows multiple paths-traced by imposed or negotiated boundaries-that survey and cross diverse maps of identity and social thought: demarcating territories, establishing checkpoints and zones of influence that regulate the system's borders as a place from which to debate the tension of limits that include or exclude. That absorb or discard, award or punish, depending on the types of practices in question. And depending on whether these practices attempt only to reconfirm what already has been agreed on by official culture or whether they audaciously attempt to deregulate this agreement of established forms, bringing into conflict the dominant pacts of signification that unilaterally regulate values, signs, and forms of power.

The limits of inclusion and exclusion territorializing the boundaries of institutional control are neither fixed nor linear. These limits -fractured at multiple and variable points of intersection and flight -contemplate zones of greater or lesser programmatic density, of more or less flexible transit. Various forces of social and cultural change can exert sectorial or regional pressure on these limits-in order to move them, partially relax their marks of closure and vigilance, weaken rigidities, and locally defeat their resistances. Among them are: (1) forces protagonized by new groups of actors (youth, women, indigenous peoples, homosexuals, etc.) who emerge from the multiplicity of the social to reclaim their right to single out difference against the repressive uniformity of the majority's standard of identity; (2) forces invigorated by the feminist debate denouncing the homological foreclosure of masculine self-representation; and (3) transcultural and multicultural forces of the Latin American periphery that revise and critique the metropolitan synthesis of the center's modernity, and so on.

A review of the post-coup Chilean cultural context and of the democratic transition can help foreground some of the effects (and the putting into effect) of practices registering the impulse of these new critical forces that are transforming the fields of artistic and cultural thought. The transformations of cultural imaginaries stimulated by such practices, however, do not yet appear to have been incorporated into the democratic culture's horizon of debates.

Critical Junctures in the Chilean Cultural Debate

The articulation of a space for public debate-that is to say, a space in which ideas acquire their greatest consistency and polemical vigor, their greatest capacity for intellectual impact-depends on multiple factors that put into play a plurality of sociocultural mechanisms, all of them wounded by the experience of the dictatorship. The destructuring of practices' socialization networks and the confinement of voices to the microcircuits of a fragmentary public isolated and separated groups from each other, blocking the exchange between works and the structures for their reception that would have helped to expand and diversify the range and registers of their reading.

The democratic transition put an end to the prohibitions and restrictions of the "culture of fear." But cultural debates have not, as a consequence, regained their meaningfulness. The reopening of public venues for cultural intervention (the press, television, the university, government ministries, etc.), has made clear instead that the dominant tendency-with certain exceptions confirming the rule-consists of celebrating the complacent symbolism of a triple mandate: massiveness (to evaluate participation according tomerely quantitative criteria); monumentalism (to saturate performative facades with visibility and presence so as to dissipate the nuanced ambiguity of critical and reflective interstices); pluralism (to court plurality, bringing together the greatest diversity of opinions, but taking care that this confrontation of tendencies does not disrupt the passivity of the whole).

The creation and defense of spaces for debate depend, in turn, on improving those conditions that have completely devalued culture and cultural reflection. Manifestations of cultural reflection today are victims of a meager amount of attention that punishes its critical proposals and separates its polemics from the movement of ideas animating the public sphere. Television and the press saturate the numerous stages dedicated to political conversation with redundancies and predictability: the same adversaries, the same disputes, the same cliches circularly remitted and transmitted by media that increasingly trivialize the distance between news items and editorials. Lacking sufficient imagination to overcome the narrowness and banality of the simply conjunctural themes driven by an agenda of consent, these spaces generally reveal themselves to be incapable of venturing any connections that respond to the political-intellectual challenge of reexamining the links between "culture," "politics," and "democracy," connections both more conceptually rigorous and less bureaucratically and administratively accommodating.

This incapacity is inscribed, in turn, in the more global frame of profound disincentives with respect to the dialogue between culture and politics-a dialogue that almost always has proven in vain, no matter what sector has proposed it. While the role of forging an aristocratic vision of culture has corresponded historically to the conservative thought of the right (culture as the cultivation of spiritual values expressing class privilege), that vision greatly exceeds the right's political representation, imbuing prevailing notions and categories in many of the social definitions of culture orienting us daily. Definitions traditionally linked to what certain Sunday supplements (like that of the newspaper El Mercurio) call "Arts and Letters," with all the sublimated charge of a transcendent-idealistic conception of culture as the superior and universal expression of a refined individuality. The most widely disseminated images in the press and on television today, of the creator and of aesthetic rituals as contemplative and disinterested experiences, continue to emphasize this dematerialized vision of culture, according to which artists and writers fetishistically embody an excess of sensibility and imagination. An excess exalted in works that seem to transcend clashes of interests and ideological antagonism, as if culture were not a sociomaterial process whose productive and communicative textures relate bodies, signs, and institutions in struggles of economies, languages, and desires.

If we shift our gaze toward the forms the traditional left has used to interpret culture, partisan instrumentalism and ideological reductionism come into view as recurrent distortions in artistic practice, exacerbated in those contexts where political art had to be dramatized to protest and denounce the dictatorship. Instrumentalism and reductionism due to the assumption that the calling of artistic production is to represent or illustrate (in a subordinate manner) social tensions, as if those tensions consisted of preconfigured meanings and not the process in which the work intervenes (disorganizes, reformulates) through an active and multisignifying play of replicas, disjunctures, and contradictory proposals.

Despite the new left's rejection of militant art's gross partisan functionalism, it continues for the most part to uphold a conception of culture that posits it as a kind of symbolic-expressive supplement capable of transfiguring social conflicts into images, but without sufficient protagonism to dismantle and recodify its figurations and significations.

Various political interventions forming part of the socialist debate call for the incorporation of "the cultural" into democratic thought as a new dimension open to the theme of (individual and collective) subjectivity, one of the themes repressed by the overly economistic dogma of the Marxist left. A theme that today invites the exercise of sensibility and imagination in the creative design of lifestyles and forms of cohabitation which revitalize the experience of the city and the neighborhood, the environment, free time, interpersonal relationships, and the like.

New socialism's debates recognize the erosion of politics' traditional representations and meanings, heretofore organized around the identification of power as a centralized referent in the form of the State; and around the discussion of strategies for battle, conquest, and the exercise of that power seen simply as questions of institutional governability. The erosion of these petrified motifs in the classic left's doctrinaire versions suggests, in contrast, that only a more cultural dimension of the social problematic could recapture the political imagination. A dimension articulating "struggles of interest" (struggles vindicating rights) but also combining "struggles of desires" (that is, struggles expressing options for symbolic change that seek to rediagram every detail of daily life). Part of the new democratic scheme is based on the fact that social and communal heterogeneity has led to the formation of sectorally segregated groups, whose liberatory utopias clash not only with "exploitative" relationships (in the economistic language of class struggle) but also with "oppressive" and "dominating" (sexually, racially, etc.) relationships, following a transversality of forms of power that interweave multiple chains of subjection, impossible to untangle with a single (central) paradigm for resolving conflict.

The theoretical reorientations of international socialist debates around these new figures of the left's political-cultural imaginary have influenced local positions: those linked to Socialist Renewal (Renovacion Socialista) sectors played a decisive leadership role in the Chilean process of democratic reorganization. Nevertheless, the attention such sectors directed toward the Chilean artistic and cultural scene-whose rearticulation paralleled its own discussion of the political crisis of representation in the eighties-for the most part failed to appreciate the transformative potential of the critical energy contained in the work of ideological and cultural derepresentation practiced by that "new scene." Despite the fact that related referents (postmarxism in the social sciences, poststructuralism in artistic and cultural theory) could have promised a complicitous dialogue regarding the transformation of languages carried out in unofficial culture by its most heterodox tendencies, that dialogue did not occur, or only occurred in a fragmentary fashion.

Most sociologists of alternative culture utilized research frameworks oriented toward criteria of social performance, whose logic of efficiency proved hostile to the oppositional impulse of artistic practices whose intensity could not be channeled through the rationalist-pragmatic terms of social scientific discourse. Insofar as that discourse was financed by international agencies expecting useful observations about the sociopolitical dynamics of the re/constitution of subjects destined to form the new set of actors who would lead the democratic transition, it could not account for the characteristic uselessness of the most perturbing aesthetics of the moment, which sought to exacerbate words and images as zones for disordering signs. The political-libidinal excesses of those aesthetics, which twisted codes and identities through languages refracting the ideological functionalism of militant art, were ignored by most sociology of alternative culture and also by most Socialist Renewal intellectuals. It is curious to see how, today, socialism's theoretical and political agenda seeks to dialogue with postmodernism (heterogeneity, fragmentation, multiplicity, decentering, etc.), given its earlier inability to recognize that all this heterological emphasis placed on the multiversity of meaning was already being conjugated in the critical deconstructionism of a theoretical and cultural scene opting for syntactic rupture over militant phraseology, transcultural parody over Latin Americanist dogma, a microbiographical vocabulary over the historicist epic.


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Table of Contents

Translator’s Acknowledgments vii

Translator’s Preface ix

Note on This Translation xiii

ONE Spatial Politics: Cultural Criticism and Feminist Theory 1

TWO Does Writing Have a Gender? 17

THREE Politics and Aesthetics of the Sign 29

FOUR Gender Contortions and Sexual Doubling: Tranvestite Parody 43

FIVE Feminism and Postmodernism 55

Notes 69

Bibliography 81

Index 87

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