The Spectacular City: Violence and Performance in Urban Bolivia by Daniel M. Goldstein

Goldstein, Daniel M.The Spectacular City: Violence and Performance in Urban Bolivia. Latin America Otherwise Series. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2004. Pp. xiii + 274, illustrated.

In The Spectacular City, Daniel Goldstein explores performance as the locus of community formation, collective identity, and political action. The spectacle, once conceived as one of the main avenues through which nation- states exhibited their power and assigned the populace a fixed zone of spectatorship, is explored here as a mechanism employed by the underprivileged to contest the politics of exclusion. Goldstein centers his study of the role of spectacle in modern societies on the marginal neighborhood of Villa Sebastian Pagador, located in the outskirts of Cochabamba, Bolivia, home to migrants mostly from the rural region of Oruro. Traditionally known as the locale of the annual folkloric festival of San Miguel, a fiesta modeled after the internationally famous Carnaval de Oruro, Villa Sebastian Pagador has lately gained public notoriety for the attempted lynching of suspected thieves. By looking at performance as political action, The Spectacular City intervenes in the current scholarship focused on the socio-economic crisis brought about by the application of neoliberal policies in Latin America and on the many collective actions that are born following the withdrawal of the state. The book's main goal is to explore what lies behind the notion of making justice with one's own hands, given the authorities' failure to provide the people with security and legal justice. Goldstein situates the extreme performance of vigilante lynching within a context of social injustice and collective identity, in which spectacular performance operates as a viable mechanism for the dispossessed to gain access to the public eye.

In the introduction, "Becoming Visible in Neoliberal Bolivia," Goldstein presents the Fiesta de San Miguel and vigilante lynching as "appropriations of cultural or legal domains typically designated as arenas of state control" (4). He states that exploring these two events as performance allows him to get to the "underlying political logic" that they share in the context of exclusionary politics. In this chapter, Goldstein gives an account of the instrumental role of urban design in bringing about this logic of unequal citizenship and of the spectacle in activating space for expressions of national belonging to be carried out by a different agent: the people. Goldstein's take on the spectacular society implies a reading of violence "not just as a symptom of the failure [of the state] but a spectacular response to it" (21). According to Goldstein, large-scale performance enables certain groups to pose as public, a "popular public" to whom the authorities are accountable.

In Chapter One, "Ethnography, Governmentality, and Urban Life," Goldstein scrutinizes the practice of ethnography in relation to the politics of representation, an issue that has repeatedly presented a challenge for contemporary anthropology. He shows how, in a context of heightened tension and distrust, the Pagadoreños get involved in projects of community self-representation, simultaneously performing for and hiding from the external gaze.

Chapter Two, "Urbanism, Modernity, and Migration in Cochabamba," provides an overview of municipal policies through which "illegal squatters are remade as citizens, transformed through the land legalization process into landowners and taxpayers" (89). Within the context of neoliberalism, in which the duties of the State in relation to its citizens are highly reduced, this chapter shows how those in power still impose their sovereignty, operating at a micro-political, bureaucratic level.

Chapter Three, "Villa Sebastian Pagador and the Politics of Community," tells the story from a different standpoint, that of the Pagadoreños. Following the idea of "spectacular genealogy," Goldstein looks at the historical unfolding of Villa Sebastian Pagador's public life, "in which long periods of conflict and consensus building […] are punctuated by moments of elaborate, choreographed public display" (93). The author exposes the process through which the Pagadoreños came to understand that, in order to get the attention of the authorities, they had to show themselves as a strong collective presence, infused by the symbolic capital that belonged to them as Orureños.[1]

In Chapter Four, "Performing National Culture in the Fiesta de San Miguel," Goldstein explores what he calls "spectacular demarginalization" (138), in which Pagadoreños transform their conditions of marginality through collective performative acts. Resorting to their rural origins, they are able to appeal to discourses of national belonging that privilege the traditional while relocating it at the service of the modern nation- state. Goldstein traces the transformations that the Fiesta de San Miguel underwent responding to explicit political intentions.

Chapter Five, "Spectacular Violence and Citizen Security," introduces violence as a practice to which the Pagadoreños (and also other people in the area) have resorted in order to intervene in the system of justice administration. Goldstein frames this phenomenon within the context of neoliberal Bolivia and the "privatization of justice" as "an ironic response to the lack of official state law enforcement" (181). The author's contribution to a controversial subject is that he proposes to look at vigilante lynchings not just as parallel systems of justice but as spectacles intended to mirror the violence of state inefficiency. The notion of spectacle implies a staging for an other. This idea of an event that cannot happen without an audience is what, according to Goldstein, qualifies vigilantism as a communicative act, more dependent on the symbolic gesture than on the actual concretization of punishment.

Finally, in the conclusion, "Theatres of Memory and the Violence of Citizenship," Goldstein reflects on the communicative and pedagogical dimensions of public spectacle and on the importance of the interpretative moment within this process. He points out that the issue of efficacy and control over what gets communicated is an integral part of these practices. Goldstein argues that the Fiesta de San Miguel and the lynchings constitute vital forms for the Pagadoreños "to overcome the invisibility and silence that the processes of marginalization and social exclusion have imposed" (224).

Although the book displays thorough research, based on interviews with Pagadoreños and government officials and on the analysis of media's response to the lynchings, a detailed description of the danzas[2] as structured behavior is missing. Closer attention to the embodied could have added another dimension to the study, one that does not rely so heavily on people's statements. The importance of bodily presence in these interactions with the state is key, as many of the popular protests in the Southern Cone have shown. People have confronted power collectively, but each body is put at risk in the encounter. In his take on the spectacular, Goldstein overlooks this aspect. But this lack does not prevent us from enjoying what is truly valuable in Goldstein's approach; that is, the recognition of folklore and violence together as vital channels of representation. The performances documented here expose the process by which — from passive audience to vibrant danzantesPagadoreños have become agents of their own representation to generate a practice of true democracy, once the state has abandoned them.

This review originally appeared in Modern Drama, Volume XLVIII, Number 4, Winter 2005, pp.859-61.


End Notes

  [1] People originally from Oruro, Oruro natives.

  [2] Folkloric dances.

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