Relics and Selves

Relics and Selves: an introduction

Jens Andermann
Birkbeck College, University of London

The decade from 1880 to 1890, as witness to attempts at political and social consolidation and their falling apart, is a cornerstone in the history of state-formation in Latin America. In the case of Argentina, it began with the Campaign of the Desert and ended with the (ephemeral) revolution of 1890; in Brazil the decade stretched from the first clashes between military and imperial authorities to the abolition of slavery and the overthrow of the Second Empire; in Chile, triumph in the War of the Pacific inaugurated a period terminating in constitutional crisis and civil warfare. The 1880s could thus be seen as the starting point of a pattern which would hold during most of the twentieth century, one in which apparently solid pacts and arrangements increasingly demonstrated their fragility and ultimate inability to contend with the conflicts brought about by entering the modern world order. Fundamental to these conflicts was the contradictory treatment of "others" -be they immigrants, indigenous populations, former slaves or urban workers- in the space of the nation.

It is within this period, too, that a whole range of new sites of formalisation and display of the nation's history, geography, nature, and art are created or reformed: museums of natural history and fine arts, geographical and historical societies, public monuments, national and international fairs all represented, reproduced, and displayed idealized images of the nation through symbolic means, thus providing a façade of unity and cohesion that obscured the profound divisions underlying it. Creating new symbolic environments where the nation could be experienced, these stages and institutions of culture were entrusted not only with guarding national patrimony and territory but, in a very real sense, with discovering one - ``discovering'', because iconicity was supposed to be always already inherent in objects, spaces and narratives, and ``constructing'', because both history and geography had to be ordered and labeled by the classifying gaze of science. As agents of State power, then, these environments proposed new definitions on what and who composed the nation. As such, they were sites of contested power and represented an imposition of a national project amid the turmoil of a transitional decade.

This exhibition proposes to document and analyse the emergence and canonization of consecrating images of the nation-self by the end of the nineteenth century, comparing three Latin American countries which pass through different moments of transition towards formally republican state orders, but which in fact maintained a relatively exclusive concentration of power in the hands of small elites. Amongst their South American peers, Argentina, Brazil and Chile were the countries, which experienced the highest degrees of commercial and geopolitical interpellation and cooptation on the part of the imperialist powers (Britain in the first place, but also France and, to an increasing degree, the United States). At the same time, these interpellations contributed in imposing and accelerating, in all three countries, internal processes such as territorial integration and the centralisation of hegemonic functions by the State. As a result of these processes, national elites emerged, which shared the liberal, positivist and conservative ideas of their peers in the imperial centres. Eventually, they would launch their own imperialistic agendas, which, on a regional or continental scale, sought a position of predominance for their own countries. The exhibition covers, therefore, not only the genres, disciplines and institutions which are put in charge of constructing iconic images of the State and of the nation-self, so as to produce a "desirable" citizenry in response, but it also envisages the participations of Argentina, Brazil and Chile at the world's fairs of the turn of the century, comparing these self-representations fashioned for a metropolitan audience with those forged at the national and continental exhibitions which, over the same period, take place in the countries themselves.

The common approach bridging the analysis of materials as disperse in character as paintings and photographs, critical or literary texts, historical monuments, natural history or industry exhibitions, or maps and travel accounts, is provided here by an iconographic perspective on these representations of the self forged, in their great majority, by members of the ruling elite. These could be conceived, to a certain extent, as fetishistic images of community, bestowed with the task of securing channels of communication with the masses effectively excluded from any formal political participation, and thus of reproducing the existing hegemony by means of providing realms of imaginary performativity. However, the exhibition will also shed light on the "idolatric inclinations" at the very heart of the lettered city itself, which lets itself be seduced by the images and rituals of science and progress, by the eclectic façades of a europeanising architecture, or the theatrical displays of wealth and future glory which take place at the great industrial and agricultural fairs of the time.

Given the enormous range of materials it was necessary to consider in this respect, the decade of the 1880s was chosen as a periodizing frame -albeit a loose one-, as it is then, too, that we can see substantial political repercussions of the transformations related to the technological revolution, which brought about a rise and diversification of production and consumption, and thus dramatically modified traditional relations between the rural and the urban, or between capital and region (transformations which sometimes culminated in secessionist insurrections or in civil war, as in the cases of Brazil and Chile at the start of the 1890s). But the 1880s also present themselves as a decade of profound changes in social and cultural values, related, among many other factors, to the massive inflow of European immigrants, the violent "pacification" of indigenous and mestizo populations in the rural hinterlands, or to the redefinition of race relations, as in the case of Brazil after the gradual abolition of slavery (in a legal process of almost twenty years, from 1871 to 1888). In the strange mixture of motives for this latter move, between philantrophism and a new, scientific racism expressed, for instance, in projects of "repatriation" of blacks or in the eugenic agenda of "branqueamento" (that is, of gradual "whitening" of the Brazilian population), a particular style of Latin American fin-de siècle elite culture becomes exceptionally visible, one in which the ideas, messages and objects of modernity are being re-accommodated and put to new uses, in ways that are singularly ritualistic and fetishistic in character.

It is only now, too, that institutions patronized directly by the State effectively become the principal agents to ensure the permanence of determinate structures of power and cohesion -in other words, the active production and reproduction of hegemony- by designing symbolic environments endowed with the power of the iconic. Their principal function, then, can be said to lie in the creation, or evocation, of a sense of belonging among their audience. What, however, constitutes a "symbolic environment"? A telling example may be found in a letter -undated, but almost certainly written at the beginning of the 1880s- the architect and engineer Enrique Dalmonte sent to the Uruguayan collector and historian Andrés Lamas, who at the time was serving as vice-president to the organising committee for the Buenos Aires World's Fair (an event which would eventually be downsized to a "continental exhibition", and which took place in 1882 on what is now the city's Plaza Once). Consulted over a compelling corporate design for the exhibition, Dalmonte came up with the following draft:

The Park: Whatever the geometrical form of the terrain allocated to the park, it will not present any obstacle whatsoever to accommodate in it the geometrical form of the Argentine Republic. The external shape or remaining ground will be covered with little woods or shrubs, so as to underscore its demarcation. The geographical shapes of each and every of the fourteen provinces will be adopted for orchards and little woods: the animal kingdom will have its representation in cages, huts, caves, and areas fenced with electric wire. The mineral kingdom will form capricious streams and caves, with regard to the amount of elements that can be obtained from the provinces. [...] How many new enterprises may perhaps be born, how many associations may shoot up at the magical sight of the Exhibition of Buenos Aires: and finally, it is important that nationals as well as foreigners should find in the combination of the park an evident panorama, I would almost say, that they undertake an excursion, although on a small scale, across the entire Argentine Republic.

In this multimediatic allegory of Argentina, different genres of spatial imagery (the map and the landscape) have been juxtaposed and brought into dialogue with various types of collections and display formats: a zoological and botanical garden, an industrial and agricultural fair, apart from which the show was also to include a historical exhibition and a fine arts salon. Even though the Buenos Aires fair would finally have to content itself with the far more modest dimensions of a single, temporary exhibition palace, Dalmonte´s project was far from expressing an individual, eccentric fantasy. Two years after the Continental Exhibition, construction work began on the nearby La Plata Museum, under the supervision of its director Francisco P. Moreno. Although the cartographical metaphor of the silhouette of the republic was omitted, the museum was indeed to be located in the midst of a vast park landscape containing a botanical and zoological garden displaying species from all parts of Argentina. The building itself would be in rectangular shape, with a semicircular gallery at each extreme, a design that was adopted so as to allow visitors to advance, in a continuous, uninterrupted stroll, through the subsequent stages of evolution. From the section of minerals and fossils, they would pass on to gaze at mounted skeletons of prehistorical animals and at the embalmed corpses of contemporary ones, upon which they would find themselves vis-à-vis remains of "ancient and modern Indians" -the latter being, in fact, the bodies of indigenous victims of the military campaigns which had only recently resulted in the conquest of vast regions of Patagonia and the southern Pampas. Also in the museum, albeit still alive, were the families of several Indian chiefs, which had been taken prisoners during the campaign, and who whilst at the museum were made to produce textiles and other artisan crafts to be displayed in the ethnographical section, following which the visitor's path would end in the section of fine arts. The arts, then, represented the highest stage in the long chain of evolution, a continuous order of succession, which amalgamated the new biological paradigms, and correspondent ideological notions of racial superiority and artistic taste. The Museum thus unfolded before its visitors a theatrical narrative ranging from remote prehistories to the very present, and whose subsequent stages were bound together not so much by textual explanations (which were, in fact, almost altogether absent from the original exhibition) but by a complex design featuring pseudo-indigenous ornamentation as well as paintings and murals of sceneries and themes alluded to by the exhibits.

Certainly among the most "advanced" exhibitions in the Americas at the time, the La Plata Museum sent its visitors on a journey across space and time, an "excursion, although on a small scale" through the geography, natural history, and anthropology of their fatherland, in order to make them experience the nation as an organic totality. It is this very notion of totality, several of the critical pieces included in this virtual exhibition argue, alongside an almost unlimited faith in the mimetic powers of miniature and of allegory, which becomes one of the common denominators of symbolic environments at the end of the nineteenth century. Perhaps we could, furthermore, distinguish two main lines, or currents, in the analysis of these imageries and stagings of the nation: on the one hand, the formalisations of national space as a geographical territory, on the part of national atlases and maps, and as a landscape of identity depicted and idealized in landscape painting and poetry, or in travel accounts. On the other hand, there are the domestications of the object world, as material or spiritual possessions of the national collective, on the part of the museums of history, anthropology and the natural sciences. On both levels -territory and patrimony- we can thus observe a certain tension between, on the one hand, a detached, scientific perspective towards an objectified material world, and a gaze which returns to the objects and spaces the halo of the auratic, thus converting them into residual fetishes of identity. This tension is particularly visible in those genres of representation and display which by definition mediate between spatial and temporal conceptions of the national, that is, in the interrogations of "the other" (embodied in the indigenous or the popular), both from the point of view of anthropology (dominated, at the time, almost entirely by physiological currents) and that of ethnology and folklorism, approaches that begin to emerge, albeit still in contradictory and timid fashion, in the works of writers such as Juan B. Ambrosetti, Martín Gusinde, Sílvio Romero or José Veríssimo.

However, concepts and images from both currents -objectifying science and empathic traditionalism- frequently overlap or coincide in a single symbolic environment: thus, for example, most of the natural science museums of the time also contain historical, ethnographical, and even fine arts sections; and even the most rigorously "scientific" geographical writing never refrains altogether from aestheticizing the territory of the map as a landscape that emblematises the nation. Although it is possible -and even revealing- to identify the two rival paradigms of depiction and display with antagonistic factions of the elite, which are disputing hegemony, it is also true that both discourses, with their characteristic rhetorics and iconographies, fortify each other's stance: why not consider, for example, the interfaces between the process of historiographical territorialisation of the city (in particular the capital city) as a memory-space, a network of patriotic monuments which are interconnected by axis of squares and avenues whose names engrave a hegemonic version of national history into the very fundaments of the city, and the techniques of nationalising natural space employed by travelling geographers and cartographers, who cover the map with the names of the nation? Again, it seems, the difference between both forms of writing is one of scale: while the latter transforms nature into a monument, the former invents, on the stage of the city, a nature of monuments.

The quote from the architect Dalmonte´s letter discussed above, however, is also illustrative of a process traversing the entire final quarter of the century, during which commercial fairs gradually come to replace museums as privileged sites for symbolic display of the nation-state. Commodities are now taking the place of historical artifacts and natural specimens as fetishes of national identity: the nation comes to be represented not merely as the sum of what it contains in space and time, but it concurs, as a unit of production, at international contests amongst those belonging to "the concert of nations". Even though the more immediate intention of these new representations was directed towards attracting investors and immigrants from overseas, they also contained an implicit message to a vernacular audience, one that was transmitted not only through the metropolitan correspondents of the great Latin American newspapers such as Darío or Gómez Carrillo, who attended and chronicled the "feasts of progress", but more particularly through those exhibitions held at provincial, national and continental level since the 1860s (in other words, starting less than a decade after the beginning of the series of great exhibitions at London's world's fair of 1852). These events, then, present us with a heterogeneous corpus of artifacts, images and texts where it is possible to read a dialogue -or, in more mercantile terms, a competition- between those representations of Latin America forged by and for a local elite audience, and those mounted in the imperial centres overseas.

A quite telling example of this dialogue and competition can be found in the Brazilian pavilion of the Parisian exhibition of 1889: designed by the French architect Louis Dauvergne, in the kind of eclectic exoticism so common to a great portion of monumental architecture of the era (it cited, curiously enough, elements of Hispanic Moorish and colonial architecture), this exhibition palace contained two altogether different exhibitions. On the ground floor, a collection of woods, minerals, fibres, fruits and other raw materials was displayed in an Arcadian environment designed by various French artists, and susciting Rousseaunian images of a virginal and prodigious nature still to be explored and exploited by European capital and immigration. The upper floors, however, designed by Brazilians, contained manufactured products, scientific and literary publications, furniture and works of art, which jointly suggested a modest but nevertheless firm strife towards modernity and refinement. Needless to say, the majority of European commentators of the exhibition preferred the ground floor, which appeared to them as more "authentically Brazilian".

As Timothy Mitchell has suggested, fin-de-siècle culture forges an image of the world as exhibition, where everything falls subject to an essentially visual pattern, which at the same time ensures the fundamental disponibility of objects, messages, and human beings. This world-object, at the same time, is subjected to a point of view endowed with authority, a subject-position that not by chance coincides, geographically and historically, with the place of Empire. On the Latin American periphery, this imperial gaze is reconstructed, on a smaller scale, in the form of the nation-as-exhibition. These new representations of the nation-self, in coincidence with a moment of state consolidation, constitute in many ways a point of departure for a kind of communication between the State and the new, modern masses which, given the lack of any real performativity on the level of politics and culture, remains largely of an imaginary and fetishistic character.

One last reflection on the role of literature and of criticism in this context of national iconographies. Even though writing partakes actively in the fetishizing of certain images of nationhood, some literary and essayistic works written between 1880 and the end of the century can, at the same time, provide the clues for a deconstruction of the fetishistic arrangement. Literary, historical and scientific texts not only form part of the staging of the national at exhibitions and museums, as material evidence of the immaterial, but many historical and travel narratives of the late nineteenth century furthermore adopt the order of the exhibition as a structural device of literary composition. It is for this very reason, we could argue, that these narratives which Philippe Hamon has described as "warehouse-texts", at the same time as they forge national symbolic environments in space and in time, allow us a glimpse of the way in which visibility and disponibility are manufactured. Facing the predominantly visual and exhibitionist symbolic order of the late nineteenth century, writing somewhat ironically becomes a critical tool, one of the keys to access the invisible.

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