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The frontier of the exotic : a reflection on its meaning in society and art.

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1. 1 The frontier of the exotic: a reflection on its meaning in society and art Teresa PorzecanskiBefore alluding to contemporary debates about the concept of culture, 1…
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  • 1. 1 The frontier of the exotic: a reflection on its meaning in society and art Teresa PorzecanskiBefore alluding to contemporary debates about the concept of culture, 1 bound up as it is with theimprobable task of defining features that have remained “unique and exclusive” to a particular humangroup, society or nation, within a global context where contact between peoples dates from longbefore so-called “globalization” (it can be traced back to trade, wars, slavery, marriage alliances,migrations and all manner of contact and exchange between groups and nations from very early on inthe course of history), we might simplistically fall back on such “ungraspable” units as idiosyncrasies,languages, worldviews, subscriptions to belief systems or on the exercise of rights and obligations assome of the aspects of the collective imaginary to be taken into account in the construction of socialidentities. But, whereas in the past “the nation was the integrating unit in which differences and faultlineswere organized and ‘resolved’”,2 and all these indicators seemed to “take hold” of a territory, apopulation that thought of itself as quasi-endogamous, and a particular history that supposedly had notbeen altered by other cultures, nowadays the debate centres on the fragility of the notion of autonomy.Objects of curiosityIndians, blacks, foreign immigrants have always been the object of curiosity, description andinterpretation by artists and writers in any place or time as a category of “others” or “otherness”,understood as that which startles, contrasts or clashes with our own way of looking at ourselves.Indeed, the gaze of the plastic artist, the writer and the artisan has always lighted inquisitively upon“others” in an unremitting attempt to sketch their ever-unknown profiles, which somehow escapesimple, univocal classification. Botero’s fat men and women, Figari’s blacks, the gauchos and Indiansdepicted by so many others, the “little English woman” in José Pedro Bellán’s story, the “gringo” oftango lyrics, are just some of these “others”, which have always obsessed the creator of art. Already in the engravings made by 16th- to 18th-century naturalists and artists who arrived aboardthe voyages of discovery and conquest it is possible to discern a note of profound ethnocentrism. Theiconography of those centuries is peopled with semi-human figures with naked torsos and animaltails, wolf muzzles and webbed feet, foreshadowing an imaginary fuelled by fears and legends,glimpses of monstrosity and the consequent difficulties in conceiving of tolerance. And that is just thepreamble to a conception of an exotic America, where the excesses of the atypical and superabundantflora and fauna have always defied the canons of a Europe that was at the time unveiling newtechnologies for navigating and exploring the Mundus Novus. The extensive bibliography of descriptions and interpretations of these “others” includes chroniclesof various councils held in Spain, at which the topic of debate was whether such peoples discovered inthe Indies, whose “pagan” ways of life shocked and bewildered, were composed of human beings orwhether they were in actual fact “beasts” (their animality understood as monstrosity rather thannature), to what extent Americans belonged to each category, whether these categories authorized thisor that policy of exploitation and commerce, and whether it was necessary or not to convert them,evangelize them and swiftly transform them into people if not equal to, then at least as similar aspossible to their discoverers.3 Ultimately, it can be said that the history of human societies has been woven from all kinds ofconvergences and divergences, confrontations and conflicts of varying degrees of violence with some“other” on the basis of this “otherness”. This might have involved American Indians at the time of theDiscovery and Conquest, slaves brought over from Africa, gypsies, impoverished immigrants or aneighbouring people whose way of living or thinking surprised or challenged. In the final analysis, thelabel of “other” can be given to any group we have defined as an “other” and placed in the category of“otherness” at sufficient distance. This matter of otherness has always provided the essential structure for human societies. There is ahost of terminology in the documents of 15th- to 19th-century Europe that illustrates how men have1 See, for example, Geertz, Clifford, Reflexiones antropológicas sobre temas filosóficos, Barcelona, PaidósStudio, 2002.2 García Canclini, Néstor, Latinoamericanos buscando lugar en este siglo, México, Paidós, 2002, p. 35.3 Ortega y Medina, Juan A., Imagología del bueno y del mal salvaje, México, Universidad Nacional Autónomade México, 1987.
  • 2. 2regarded this “otherness”. To summarize, for the purposes of this brief exposition, it can be said thatthere were, on the one hand, idealized and apologetic positions (the example being Rousseau orMontaigne, who in a kind of retro-utopia wrote that the “savageness” of this “other” had preserved the“pure” untouched ways of a supposed “original man”, an individual as yet uncontaminated by whatwould later be called “civilization”); on the other, thinkers of the stature of Voltaire, Hegel andBuffon regarded American man as an inferior being full of “vices” and “perversions”, less intelligentand equipped for life than Western European man. In both cases, either the vision of the “other” as a descendent of hell or as perfect and virtuous, theproblem existed of “what to do with this other”, with the “otherness” of this “other”, where to insert itin a system of categories representing a non-homogeneous social reality. The challenge was tolegitimize this “other” as an other, not a semi-human monster, nor a perfect being above all the rest. This ambiguity and contradiction sum up the traditional ways of regarding the “other” on the basisof bipolar positions within philosophy from the 16th to the 20th century, which over time generatedsocial distance and influenced the emergence of different forms of racism, discrimination and specificways of establishing frontiers and limits. Even the most idealized perspectives on this “other”constructed the clearest of boundaries and in this sense they have been just as dangerous anddiscriminatory as those that demonize this “otherness”.The countries of America: the background of an exotic imaginaryThe fact is that America already existed in the minds of Europeans as a place of legends fuelled bysuperstition, imagery and sagas set in stony flatlands lost on the outermost fringes of the ocean.Seneca had announced that “Centuries will come in which the ocean will loose its chains and a greatland will be discovered”. The descriptions of chroniclers and travellers then turned the Mundus Novus into a thrilling stageon which to play out hopes, conflicts and tragedies which over the centuries would bring about asubstantial change in the European mentality: the slow, gradual decentring of Europe and theEuropean way of life. For the European, assimilating America was not only an epic journey ofconquests and confiscation but above all a long process of incorporating and inventing meanings thathad to overcome the old established European centralism. The first of these meanings was the extraordinary, the incredible made flesh, that which inspiresfascination and captures the gaze under the heading of excess. Ethnocentrism in the guise ofexaggeration, the raptures of enthusiasm that Pedro Mártir de Anglería described in a letter to hisfriend Pomponio Leto in the 15th century: …of the eighteen ships that my King and Queen gave to Columbus himself for the second sea voyage […] twelve have returned. Those who return from that previously unknown world recount that that land naturally breeds vast forests of cochineal, cotton and many other things of great value to us including no small amount of gold. It is an admirable thing, Pomponio. On the surface of the land nuggets of raw gold, native to the region, are found, of such a weight as one dare not tell. Some have been found weighing two hundred and fifty ounces. It is hoped to find much larger ones, judging by the signs made by the natives to our people when they learn that they value gold highly.4 Many chroniclers’ descriptions are in the form of an endless inventory enumerating the plants,trees, animals and people that have to be named, and specify their uses in detail. The older task of thebotanist, the geographer and the naturalist is to name and by naming to give existence to a previouslyunknown reality. In these descriptions adjectives relating to exuberance and size predominate,alongside the hunt for comparisons with similar forms in the Old World, without ever really findingthem, for things in the New World appeared ambiguous and difficult to classify to the Europeans:both similar and different to the ones they knew. On 19th May 1520, in his Primer viaje en torno al Globo [First voyage around the Globe],Antonio Pigafetta described a tribe of giants [sic]: “this man was so big that our heads barely reachedhis waist”, and a species of “strange animal with the head and ears of a mule, the body of a camel, thehooves of a deer and the tail of a horse” (p. 57). In other descriptions the animals are too big or toosmall, the people are either “beardless and feeble” or gigantic. “Let us see why there are such largereptiles, such fat insects, such small quadrupeds and such weak men in this New World,” says Buffon. In the first chapter of his second decade Pedro de Anglería recounts:4 De Anglería, Pedro Mártir, “Opus Epistolarum”, Letter CXLVI, in Escritores de Indias, Zaragoza, EditorialEbro, 1981, p. 52.
  • 3. 3 The crops and all the vegetables grow admirably in Urabá. Is this not wonderful, Holy Father? They take to those lands seeds of all things, branches of plants, sprouts, twigs and shoots of certain trees, as we have also said of quadrupeds and birds. Oh, what admirable fertility! After twenty days or so they pick the fruit […] they recount that they bear fruit with great speed…5 To a Europe that was for the first time stepping out of its closed world towards a gradual idea ofdifference, America was “abundance” personified: all that space whose absolute immensity andmyriad forms could be stated categorically. Paradisiacal or monstrous, infernal or heavenly, to theEuropeans America was the embodiment of the kind of constituent disproportion that gets menphysically and mentally carried away. The chroniclers speak of greed, lust, madness. Lope de Aguirrewas the paradigm of the descent into hell through a bestiality Europeans had long since held to havebeen domesticated by civilization. If the voyages of discovery and conquest form a narrative of excess, it is because they call forth animagination that swings from miracle-working to horror and back, an incursion into the exotic.The function of “the exotic”One of the least tense and most creative outcomes for artists has been the concept of “the exotic”.Reconstructing “the exotic” within a society formed by powerfully homogenizing processes is likelyto become a pressing need for any collective imaginary. Artists have always been more willing thanany other social actor to incorporate the representation of “otherness” into the context of an æstheticthey wish to make more varied and to include surprise and originality. They have therefore been ableto think of difference as an æsthetic value while at the same time legitimizing it. Unlike other Latin American societies, where the quantitative importance of Native and AfricanAmericans has been much higher, the appeal to the category of the exotic has only developedbelatedly in Uruguayan society. This I suspect is for two reasons: a) the greater ethnic and linguisticuniformity of the grassroots population at the outset of its organizational processes leading up toindependence and b) the rapid secularization and modernization of the young nation under the ægis ofthe hyperintegrating concept of citizenship. In general terms, the idea of the exotic seems to have first appeared in Latin America in associationwith a particular geography.6 This is what occurred with the term “tropicalism”, which the Europeansused to describe their Caribbean colonies, a model fuelled by the contrast between climates andecosystems and which served as a preliminary step in the interpretation of the ethnic contrast betweenpopulations and cultures. In the case of the old Banda Oriental, which comprised Uruguay and part of Southern Brazil, thedescription of the geography traditionally given talks of a “gently rolling” land with no radicalgeographical features or cataclysms (volcanoes, earthquakes, etc.). The population, including thealready Christianized indigenous peoples from the Guaraní missions, apparently showed no signs ofsubcultures other than those originating from the border influences identified by linguists and thosethat have gradually come about as a result of various kinds of productive exploitation (rural/urban,cattle/agriculture) and their subtypes. Though these subcultures may have preserved and transformedfeatures that had earlier belonged purely to indigenous cultures, it is clear that, in line with FranzBoas’s conceptualization of “cultural loan”, these traits have undergone successive transformationsuntil becoming functional elements in the new syncretisms and configurations. But even when exoticism was apparently unable to establish itself on the basis of a territory withno drastic topographies and topologies, it would be able to grow through breaks in the timeline. Thesebreaks were produced as reflections on moments that were already “closed” viewed from theperspective of the present as otherness. One example is the classic construction of “the archaic”7 as areference considered in relation to the present, which becomes an exemplary model of practices,ceremonies and lifestyles. In terms of social dynamics, “the exotic” as “all that which is other”8 or as “the concept ofdifferent, the perception of the diverse, the knowledge that something is not one’s self”9 becomes anenergizing notion for the social and political forces of a nation as a whole, constituting as it does a5 Ibid., pp. 57–58.6 Todorov, Tzetan, Nous et les autres, Paris, Le Seuil, 1989, p. 368.7 Eliade, Mircea, El mito del eterno retorno. Arquetipos y repetición, Madrid, Alianza-Emecé, 1972.8 Cf. Segalen, Victor, Essai sur l’exotisme, in Todorov, Tzetan, op. cit., p. 369.9 Ibid.
  • 4. 4dynamic element that fosters surprise and astonishment, and indirectly causes the breakdown ofpreviously accepted, “naturalized” stereotypes. Of course, for society in general, but also for art inparticular, it becomes a concept that encourages æsthetic variety, originality and new ways ofrecombining old elements. Furthermore, for Victor Segalen, the exotic signifies a revitalization of the senses: “…exoticism[…] as the fundamental law of the intensity of sensation, of the exaltation of feeling, and therefore ofthe life experience”.10 A further element that must be taken into consideration in such discourses is the recovery of“archaic themes, mythical references or images of the good old days”.11 The recourse to an archetypalsubstratum “cyclically repeats what was believed to have been left behind”. 12 The recovery and reuseof these archaisms interrupts the continuous line of temporality in a process where “self-assuredhistory gives up its place to a plural and diversified mythology”.13 Consequently new modulations oftime and space appear: territories, specific communities, regionalities,14 localisms, a sort of “folkloreof the particular” that interpenetrates and contaminates the processes of uniformization framed bycultural globalization. The quest for new forms of “exoticism” as a reaction to an excessive “homogeneity” of vitalexperiences15 leads to a conceptual nomadism in search of “roots” and foundations. The value of thisquest rests on the rediscovery of novel, distinctive, peculiar singularities that serve as new referencepoints for new identifications and for alternative, unorthodox ways of life.Blurring the frontiersConstructing communities of shared meanings through shared symbols is a slow, gradual processinvolving negotiation of the meanings, receptivity and selectivity in exchange, a degree of opennessand the necessary production of new myths. The unifying function of new mythologies becomescentral in processes for integrating distinctive national attachments. Above and beyond nationalborders, shared mythologies reconcile substantive imaginaries that include similarities relating toregional roots, and stir strong emotions associated with belonging and identification. Moreover, in line with the modality prevailing in most contemporary urban societies, permeatedby global mass communication, regional identities are more a result of the concept of “weak borders”than of the abandonment of any precise demarcation in terms of political sovereignty. As García Canclini writes: Nations are no longer what they were, nor do they have strict borders or customs controls that might contain what is produced within them and filter what comes in from outside. There are millions of us who leave our countries and continue to be Mexican or Cuban in the United States, Bolivians and Uruguayans in Argentina, Latin Americans in Madrid, Paris or Chicago.16 To say nothing of the history of the population of countries that in the late 20th century entered thecategory of “country of emigration”, such as Uruguay, formed over just three centuries almostexclusively by successive waves of migration. 17 Some estimates put the number of Uruguayanemigrants for the period 1963–2004 at around 440,000, or about 13.9% of the population resident in10 Ibid., p. 370.11 Maffesoli, Michel, “Las culturas comunitarias: policulturalismo y postmodernidad”, in Giner, Salvador, andRiccardo Scartezzini (eds.), Universalidad y diferencia, Madrid, Alianza Universidad, 1996, p. 99.12 Ibid.13 Ibid.14 Ibid. Paraphrase.15 “The impoverishment of experience, its lack of relief, is in all other respects connected to the intenseopacity generated by the mass media. The schematization of life makes it feasible for it to be supplanted bythe printed word and the journalistic snapshot, the giddy phrasing of the airwaves, the electronic image of theTV screen,” writes José Jiménez in “Sin patria. Los vínculos de pertenencia en el mundo de hoy: familia, país,nación”, in Fried Schnitzman, Dora, Nuevos paradigmas, cultura y subjetividad, Buenos Aires, Paidós, 1994,p. 221.16 García Canclini, Néstor, op. cit., p. 27.17 I have taken the liberty of using the title chosen by César Aguiar for his 1982 essay Uruguay, país deemigración, Montevideo, Banda Oriental.
  • 5. 5the country.18 This shows the extent to which attachments are becoming dualistic, ambivalent andcosmopolitan for growing sectors of the population. The old idea that peoples were born in one place and accumulated traditions there that served tosustain and perpetuate the social collective is now up against intense movements of syncretism andglobalization. The realization that other cultures have always been present in our own in anirreversible manner produces an ambiguous effect: one of opening and at the same time fear at the lossof specificity. When advertisements continually remind us we can travel to far-flung places and back in no time,or when the Uruguayan coast can receive Argentine and the north Brazilian television, then a newkind of ubiquity becomes established in our perception of the collective experience: we are here butwe are also there, we can “feel” ourselves to be here and there at the same time. This new ubiquitous subjectivity prevents us from fully belonging to a single place in any absolutesense. Ties with places and times, with the future and the past, undergo processes of readjustment andadaptation. The t
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