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Sarmiento Setup, or, What I Was Supposed to Do in Class Today!

26 Feb

Thanks are due Stana today for bringing up Civilization and Its Discontents, which would serve well as a core text for this class. As we know, in my excitement today I had forgotten to look at my own notes and realize what my schedule was supposed to be! (Subconsciously, I thought we needed to resolve some more things about HD.) So I didn’t talk about Sarmiento! Here are the lecture notes, and here is a great site on the history of Argentina during this period.

1. The connection between Sarmiento and our material so far: he engages all of the tropes on civilization and savagery, to sketch an analysis of the political and cultural situation of 19th century Argentina. This, in turn, becomes an analysis of America in general.

2. Theoretical background: Edward Said’s now classic book Orientalism. Orientalism was the 19th century academic discipline now called Near Eastern / Middle Eastern / Asian Studies: the study of the Orient. It was invented because the civilizations of the ancient Near East were of great interest as origins of our modern cultures, and because Europe was in the process of colonizing this area and needed information about it. But, Said points out, Orientalists were not entirely objective: they were looking for certain things, certain cultural characteristics, in the Orient, and they found them. Predictably enough, the Orient was Europe’s Other. It was exotic and savage – both attractive and repellent. So the discipline Orientalism constructed its own object, and the representation of the Orient it offered was a kind of mirror, Europe’s surrogate self.

Said’s book became popular among Africanists and Latin Americanists because these regions have also been represented as exotic “others” in multiple European discourses. Sarmiento’s study of Argentina can be, and has been, read as an “Orientalist” text (note that Sarmiento himself makes comparative allusions to Asia in his descriptions of Argentina). What is interesting about this is that Sarmiento is, to a certain extent, describing his (national) self – Argentina – as an Other. This means that the self-and-other are even more closely intertwined than they are in, say, Heart of Darkness. Another interesting thing is that the other is the GAUCHO, not the Native Americans. A third interesting thing is that the leaders he denounces seem to have some positive aspects – possibly analogous to those of Kurtz (this is a new idea of mine; I am still not sure how good it is, but I am throwing it out there).

3. Historical background: Argentina declares Independence from Spain in 1810 and enters a period of political turbulence and civil war. What will the new country look like? How will it be structured – who will be in power – what will the priorities and “mission,” if you will, of the new nation be? The central government is weak, and the strongmen in the countryside are strong. In this book, Sarmiento criticizes one of these strongmen, Facundo. He is described as a savage. (He is also like Kurtz in a way: he knows things and has strong powers, and his heavy hand is sometimes useful in the wild land, yet he may lack restraint.) The critique and analysis of Facundo is also meant as a critique of Rosas, who was dictator of Argentina at the time Sarmiento wrote this book (originally a series of newspaper articles published in Chile).

4. Political background: Sarmiento’s liberal party are the Unitarios. They believe in free trade to build up the money economy. They want a strong central government to organize this. They also believe in political freedoms, civil rights, federally funded roads, schools, and postal service … in sum, in modernization. They want to make the country modern like Europe and the United States, and to eradicate the “backward” social structures and elements which are the legacy of Spanish colonialism. The focus on Europe and the United States makes them “white oriented,” so to speak – they favor conquering Indian lands (as do the conservatives) and getting the African ex-slaves to move to Brazil.

The Federalist Party is not interested in a strong central government but in local control and local industries. This in practice gives the old landowners and rural strongmen a lot of power. They also favor allowing the Church to retain much of the political power it had in the colonial period. They are not nearly so concerned as the Unitarios about developing the country for commerce (building roads, educating people so they can work in offices, etc.) or creating a vibrant, cosmopolitan, urban culture. Their loyalties lie with the agricultural base. Leaders like Facundo and Rosas are not averse to using terror and torture to impose their power and their will. But they also have strong relationships with the poor of the countryside and the urban working classes, many of whom are mestizo and Black.

Roughly speaking, the Unitarios are trying to create a country more like the U.S., whereas the Federalists’ interest is to have an independent country which resembles the former Spanish colony more closely – without the control of a foreign king, of course. It is easy to say that the Unitarios “sound right” but there are some problems with their schtick such as racism, emphasizing trade over food production (not good for the economy), and contracting foreign debt to fund development (also problematic because foreign business and banks end up with a lot of political power).

It is important to remember that both Unitarios and Federalistas are elites. Neither really has the clases populares in mind, although in the end Unitario policies win out – they are the wave of the future – and they do work to create a larger middle class (white, of course).

5. Ideological background: this is the period in which the modern, liberal nation state is being formed, in the Americas and elsewhere. Based on Romantic theories about the Volk, it is thought that a nation will have a specific people, and that people will have a common language particular to them, and a common culture, also distinctive and particular to them. This is a problem for a newly independent nation like Argentina because what is their originality? Their language – Spanish – is not their own, and their official culture was until very recently Spanish. How do they become both original and authentic is a major problem for writers in this period, who were often also politicians and were engaged in the project of creating unifying cultural myths for the new nation(s).

SARMIENTO’S BOOK

Ostensibly it is a denunciation of Facundo, and thus Rosas and the entire Federalist program, and a defense of Unitario modernization. The Unitario program is presented as the obvious, common sense approach to things. Sweep away the vestiges of colonialism and general savagery (Indians and Afro-Argentines are part of the Old as well). Bring in European culture and civilization (not Spanish, they’re part of the Old, but French and English) and U.S.-style political organization, commerce, and industry. Get people educated, and encourage immigration from northern Europe (they are “more civilized,” more organized, have more of a work ethic, and so on) [the irony later on was that it was actually Italians, and not Scandinavians, who moved to Argentina in droves].

What it does, more importantly, is establish images of what Argentina (America) is, and of its people. This is what I am inerested in for our purposes. Note:

+ Sarmiento starts out talking about the land, what it looks like. It is bad news. Too big, too empty, too threatening – a “desert” (but similar to a jungle). It is wild, and this is a bad thing.

+ The wild land engenders wild people: the gauchos (Argentine cowboys). They do not have modern work habits, they do not fence their fields, they gallop around on their horses, they drink, sing, and fight, they behave like savages. Facundo is [like] a gaucho and he is savagery incarnate.

+ However: the wild land inspires awe, and it is something you cannot find in Europe, and the gauchos have a culture of their own, which is not an imitation of anything existing in Europe. So there is wild, wonderful energy in that savage desert, and there is cultural originality and creativity in its inhabitants.

+ And here we have the paradox: the savage is savage, so it is “bad,” but it is also desirable for various reasons; it is the side of “us” we officially do not like, but which we secretly desire and need.

+ Ultimately, what happens in real life is that when the pampas are settled and the gaucho as a social class is no longer so large or strong, the gaucho becomes an iconic image of Argentine “originality.”

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Posted by on February 26, 2008 in Sarmiento

 

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