Fighting fatal stereotypes

The Moderns
August 10, 2001

The field of Spanish cultural studies is expanding and Paul Julian Smith's latest book, The Moderns: Time, Space and Subjectivity in Contemporary Spanish Culture , is an exemplary work in this growing discipline. It is as academically impeccable and theoretically ambitious as it is attentive to the multiplicity of cultural formations characteristic of contemporary Spanish society. The book has an explicit double aim: to change the object of Hispanism by incorporating hitherto-unexplored new media such as photography, town planning, performance and pop music; and to analyse that new object by engaging for the first time with (mainly French) sociologically inspired cultural theory on postmodernism, the intellectual field, urbanisation and everyday life.

Smith's study focuses on the work of three authors (Francisco Umbral, Fernando Savater and self-declared "homosexual intellectual" Alberto Card!n); three film-makers (including Julio Medem and Juan José Bigas Luna); and three topics refracted through a variety of media - the replaying of history, the city and the Gypsy. These lead to the analysis of a variety of further cultural manifestations, ranging from the multimedia performances of the Catalan theatre group La Cubana to the high-tech architecture of Santiago Calatrava, and from the ethnographic photography of Cristina García Rodero to the radically deterritorialised and hybrid neo-flamenco experiments of pop-group Ketama and dancer Joaquín Cortés.

While Spaniards have not made internationally recognised contributions to the theorisation of postmodernity, and while their economic progress is still hampered by social tradition as Smith claims, their contemporary cultural practices in a variety of fields reflect the aesthetic, subjective and historical tensions of (post)modernity in a way that few can rival.

Drawing on Pierre Bourdieu's notion of the "habitus", for instance, Smith argues that Alberto Card!n's life and work constitutes an anomaly and an "improbable practice" at a time when there was simply no discursive space from which to articulate a political identity around homosexuality, let alone Aids. Card!n's chronicle of social change and "despair at the margins of the Spanish state" thus testifies to the emergence of new subjectivities, even as they are excluded from the dominant discursive consensus. Likewise, Joaquín Cortés's work and that of the pop group Ketama, against the "fatal stereotypes" found in the dominant culture, testify to the emergence of the "Gypsy" as a new, hybrid subject, incorporating nomadism and deterritorialisation, and appealing to the "tactic" (a notion that Smith takes from Michel de Certeau) as a movement through a field (the mass-media and the global market place) that is clearly not their own.

Smith's inspiring and rigorous take on contemporary Spanish culture is both against trying to reduce analysis to empirical evidence and against abandoning it to "the ecstasies of abstraction". Hence, one of the book's greatest achievements is the way that it draws attention to the specificity of individual works while attempting at the same time to integrate them into an objective account of Spanish cultural production and consumption.

Giving careful consideration to the institutional positions from which literary and philosophical discourses emerge, The Moderns warns (Hispanist) cultural critics against the dangers of "metaphysics", encouraging them to take up instead the greater challenge of what, paraphrasing the author on Medem, one might call working "on a strictly human scale".

David Vilaseca is senior lecturer in Hispanic studies, Royal Holloway, University of London.

The Moderns: Time, Space, and Subjectivity in Contemporary Spanish Culture

Author - Paul Julian Smith
ISBN - 0 19 816000 3 and 816001 1
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £40.00 and £14.99
Pages - 206

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