Study Guide (HUM455)

The most difficult text we read this semester– certainly the longest– is Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo, which narrates the political vicissitudes of the imaginary country of Costaguana (remember the significance of that name?). In the aftermath of independence and the decades that followed, when a new liberal-nationalist order consolidated, foreign capital increasingly began to control local politics. The era, which most historians argue extends from roughly 1880-1930, is properly known as the age of neocolonialism. In contrast to sub-Saharan Africa, which only fully decolonized in the 1970s (with South Africa, after a fashion, as the major exception) Latin America nations achieved sovereignty by the earlier part of the 19th century. Paradoxically, the “postcolonial” condition Latin Americans found themselves in gave way to a new effort on the part of European nations– particularly the UK– to take up where Spain had left off. The difference, however, lay in the methods for asserting hegemony: rather than caravels and arbalists, foreign powers, represented by private corporations, used money as a means of control. For those who would explore this phenomenon more deeply, the classic text is Galeano’s The Open Veins of Latin America. For those who are concerned solely with acquiring enough information to do well on the final exam, read on.

What we have in Nostromo is story of economic imperialism, of local politics distorted by powerful “material interests”– represented by Holroyd and the railroad company– which bring capital P Progress to the nation, if by progress we mean advances in communication and transportation in the service of the extraction of natural resources. But who is the ultimate beneficiary of this economic activity?  Recall the question every liberation struggle confronts: Who shall be free? And in what shall their freedom consist?

The matter of geography, of the geographical imagination, will, I hope, be at the forefront of your minds as you consider Conrad’s novel. Costaguana’s status as a semi-dependency, as something like those “banana republics” built by United Fruit Company, implies a political map. Where is the center of empire, who lives on its periphery? Within the nation itself there is not only a physical terrain to occupy cartographers, but a division between town and country, between bourgeois and campesino.

Though the neocolonial period is seen to close with the advent of a global depression– one which forced Latin American nations to revise their economic policies in favor of ISI (a program devout nationalists such as Peron were only to happy to pursue)– the cold, calculating hand of foreign capital continued to assert itself. This persistence of (increasingly US American) “material interests” would ultimately lead to the era of revolutions and dictatorships such as those which transpired in Brazil, Guatemala, and Cuba. When Ernesto and Alberto tour the Southern Cone and travel north toward Central America, they see evidence of dogged social inequalities. In fact, Ernesto– who would be christened Che by his Cuban acquaintances in Mexico City, where he fled after being deported from Guatemala in the wake of a US-backed coup– came to believe that the poverty of Nuestra America was a direct result of the greed of multinational corporations such as Anaconda Mining. This conviction led him to take up arms and fight in the successful Cuban Revolution. Such resistance was seldom tolerated by the United States. Consider the fate of Salvador Allende and Unidad Popular at the hands of Agosto Pinochet and his CIA enablers. As we saw in Chile, Memoria Obstinada, one of the casualties of Cold War anti-communism was the fabric of social life itself. Even now some Chileans are troubled by the dictatorship while others praise its devotion to public order. Because of this, the nation’s cultural memory is conflicted, and old wounds persist.

The Guevara who lived through the events describe in The Motorcycle Diaries is not the one who launched a continental insurgency from the backwoods of Bolivia. Nonetheless, we can see the seeds of his revolutionary commitments in the toast he makes at the going-away party at the leper colony. In parallel fashion Latin American cinema became increasingly politicized during the late 1950s. Recall Dos Santos’s Vidas Secas, which tells the story of rural poverty in the Brazilian sertao. The film itself– its formal choices and objective constraints– perfectly represents Cinema Nuovo, an artistic movement which made a virtue of underdevelopment, of making do with the minimal resources at hand.

Not having enough takes another form in Ana Maria Shua’s Death as a Side Effect, a dystopian novel relating the odd relationship between father and son in near-future Argentina. The context for this text is of course neoliberalism, a set of policies and an ideology which ultimately led to the meltdown of Argentina’s economy in 2001. Consider the diegesis of that narrative. What sort of world is it? What is the texture of its social life? As I wrote in another blog post:

Argentina offers a good example of the limits and dysfunctionality of neoliberal policies particularly in light of the collapse of its economy in 2001-2002. Remember the geography of Shua’s Buenos Aires and the various symptoms of social decline exhibited by this neoliberalized state, including pervasive criminality, anomie, corporate domination and a ruthless, privatized health care system. Note the potentially allegorical aspects of the novel, particularly how Argentina’s military junta and its neoliberal successors,  might fit with the diegesis. The relationship between two of the central characters– the protagonist and his father– necessarily evoked the odd relationship of power between debtors and creditors.