Battle of the baroque hedgehog and the Gothic fox

Identity and Modernity in Latin America
August 31, 2001

Despite its historic New-World status, Latin America's claim to modernity has always been tenuous. In 1990, Carlos Fuentes observed that "we are a continent in desperate search of its modernity", while his fellow Mexican Octavio Paz complained that since the beginning of the 20th century the region had been "totally installed in pseudo-modernity". The Latin America that inspires such pessimism is one of belief rather than rationalism, authoritarianism rather than liberty, anachronism rather than dynamism. Implicit in their critiques is the assumption that the continent is no match for the forward-looking United States.

This feeling that Latin America should aspire to an idealised model is nothing new. In the late 19th cen-tury, modernisers such as Argentina's Domingo Faustino Sarmiento promoted the mass immigration of Europeans in the belief that the influx of industrious genes would edge Argentina towards European civilisation as opposed to the stagnant barbarism to be expected of the In-dian and black populations. The aim was to be the "North Americans of the South", to rid Argentina of a pernicious Indo-Iberian legacy of fatalism and idleness.

Yet modernisers and social engineers have often found their opponents in those intellectuals and ideologists who have celebrated Latin America's non-Anglo-Saxon identity as a mark of its cultural authenticity and anti-imperialist credentials. The vogue of indigenismo in the 1920s sought to rediscover a golden age of pre-Columbian harmony as an explicitly non-modern idyll amid the economic crisis of the time. More recently, the "magical realism" of Gabriel García Márquez and other Latin American writers has evoked a specifically regional world view in which the fantastic and the ahistorical give shape to imagined communities such as Macondo in A Hundred Years of Solitude . Such cultural expressions of Latin American specificity are mirrored in the political arena, where opposition to imported models of free-market orthodoxy has galvanised indigenous communities across the continent in defence of traditional ways of life.

Jorge Larrain's history of Latin American modernity traces the evolution of this concept with that of identity, the collective cultural essence of Latin Americanness. All too often, he suggests, the two have been viewed as mutually exclusive, the Enlightenment-derived precepts of progress and freedom at the core of modernity clashing with the apparently absolutist and ritualistic attitudes inherent in the Indo-Hispanic mentality. A series of opposites emerges from his study: the individualistic ethos of Protestantism versus the community-oriented outlook of Catholicism; the primacy of reason versus the rule of intuition; the openness of liberal democracy versus the restrictions imposed by authority and obedience. Larrain's approach, however, is dialectical as he follows the relationships between these evolving intellectual categories through Latin American history. Colonial rule, for instance, was anti-modern, founded as it was on the dual authority of the Spanish crown and the Inquisition. With independence came a modernising elite, keen to embrace progressive ideas of the Enlightenment, but reluctant to share such freedoms with the mass of the population. The collapse of this elite ushered in the age of populism, in which theories of modernisation vied with nostalgic appeals to tradition during the economic tribulations of the 1930s.

Larrain concludes that the ideology of modernity has been most enthusiastically championed during periods of economic growth (1870-1900, 1950-1970) while phases of recession and political hardship (1930s, 1980s) witnessed a reconfirmation of essentialist identity almost as a refuge from the perceived failure of moder-nity. Thus Latin America's commitment to modernisation has varied over time, determined largely by the perceived benefits of the adoption of its tenets.

The skyscrapers and stock exchanges of Buenos Aires and Mexico City testify to the presence of a sort of modernity, just as the remote villages of the Andes suggest its absence. The region's trajectory to modernity, says Larrain, has been partial and inconsistent, reflected in stubborn and anachronistic phenomena such as clientelism, political authoritarianism and a weak civil society. But the advent of globalisation and technology, may yet be the harbinger of Latin America's movement into modernity. Macondo has become McOndo, the title of a recent Chilean anthology that describes a world of computers, shopping malls and hamburgers.

In a recent book, Claudio Veliz, a proponent of US-style modernity, paraphrased Archilochus's dictum about the hedgehog that knows one big thing and the fox that knows many things. For Veliz, the "baroque hedgehog", defensive, resistant to change and subservient to fixed sources of authority, represents Latin American culture, while the "Gothic fox", adaptable and mobile, symbolises the superio-rity of Anglo-Saxon modernity. If Latin Americans have been imprisoned in their past, "in their distrust of innovations, in their respect for status, in their immovable loyalties", they now face liberation of a sort through globalisation and the spread of consumer capitalism. Larrain, for his part, remains sceptical, arguing that no amount of computers or designer trainers will catapult Latin America into democratic modernity so long as the majority of its people remain on the margins of the formal economy and political participation.

James Ferguson is a writer and publisher specialising in Latin America.

Identity and Modernity in Latin America

Author - Jorge Larrain
ISBN - 0 7456 2623 8 and 2624 6
Publisher - Polity
Price - £50.00 and £14.99
Pages - 250

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