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Mirando la Esfera Pública desde la cultura en el Perú by Gisela Cánepa K. and María Eugenia Ulfe

GISELA CÁNEPA and MARÍA EUGENIA ULFE (eds). Mirando la esfera pública desde la cultura en el Perú. Lima: Consejo Nacional de Ciencia, Tecnología e Innovación Tecnológica (CONCYTEC), 2006. Pp. 1-308.

Mirando la esfera pública desde la cultura en el Perú is an exploration of the public sphere in Peru through the lens of culture. By focusing on what is defined as public interest, how this definition is contested by a multiplicity of actors, and the saliency of cultural politics in these processes, the fourteen contributions that make up this edited volume analyze from different vantage points what the editors term “an emergent public culture in Peru” (7).

The volume is organized into an intro section followed by PART I focusing on actors and PART II focusing on repertoires. While this distinction may be somewhat artificial given that all performative action involves both the participation of actors and the enactments of specific repertoires, the logic is that PART I emphasizes key actors in the production of a hegemonic public sphere, including multinational corporate businesses, the media, and traditional elite knowledge institutions, whereas PART II focus on the repertoires engaged by actors who usually have little possibility of intervening and gaining public visibility through mainstream media and institutions. The first part of the volume then includes essays on the place of corporate businesses such as mining corporations and super markets in the public sphere (essays by Ortemberg, Damonte, Castillo); the production, consumption, and circulation of media forms—here radio-novelas about reproductive health (Santillán) and advertisements promoting the dictionary of the Real Academia de la Lengua Española (Torres); and the role of traditional knowledge institutions such as museums (Borea) in the reconfiguration of Peru’s public sphere . The second half of the volume is comprised of essays on a variety of repertoires used by disenfranchised Peruvians—whether Andean migrants or dwellers, victims of violence, or emigrant gays in New York City—to set forth their own projects and agendas. These include the staging of and participation in public parades (Huerta-Mercado), Andean fiestas and rituals (Cánepa, Millones), regional pilgrimages (Salas), testimonies (Ulfe), and performance art (Raffo).

The intensity of the debates over what is considered public interest, what constitutes “Culture”, and who has the right to exercise citizenship in the Peruvian context must be understood in relation to the long-term exclusionary politics of race, class, and gender, which has defined the country’s social, public, and urban life at least since early on in the colonial period. For centuries the only “national subject” was the white, property-owning male criollo who resided in the capital Lima and saw himself as a cosmopolitan and ‘world knowing’ urbanite. In contrast, indigenous persons (or Indians as they were called by the elite) were marginalized, racialized, and considered as incapable of participating in national public life. They were seen as the “natural inhabitants” of the Andes and their identities were marked by an assumed primordial relationship to the earth and the mountains, which placed them at the margins of modernity and made them “matter out of place” in public urban spaces. It was not until the mid-twentieth century with the break-up of Peru’s agrarian structure, combined with the growing national industry protected by import-substitution policies, that large migration flows to Peru’s cities changed the urban landscape producing what Peruvianists have called El Nuevo Rostro del Peru. However, the different moments when the dominant social, spatial, and racial hierarchies were unsettled throughout Peru’s history have not done away with social exclusion even as it allowed for political participation of a larger variety of actors in national public life. By contrast, as several contributions show (for example, essays by Torres, Borea, and Huerta-Mercado), the cultural representations disputed often mirror and refract these long-term exclusionary politics of race, class, and gender in new ways.

The public sphere that the contributors set out to examine is conceived of not only as a space for contestation over cultural identities, citizenship, and cultural and moral values, but also a space in which such representations become politicized. A central axis in the book, the editors suggest, is to discuss the fact that cultural practices have a politics to them, but also to recognize that the field of politics is intervened by culture [SPANISH QUOTE FOR CORRECT TRANSLATION: “la práctica cultural contiene una política, pero también reconocer que el campo de la política es intervenido por la cultura”] (7). The two introductory essays explore and frame this central aspect of the debate. The clearest theoretical contribution is to be found in Cánepa’s essay. In her usual erudite style of argumentation, Cánepa aligns herself with critiques of Habermas’ original idea of a bourgeois public sphere and an approach that allows for thinking about the political beyond rigid institutional frameworks (19). She introduces Appadurai and Breckenridge’s concept of “public culture” and defines this as: “ una zona de debate cultural donde los repertorios de la cultura nacional, la cultura de masa, y la cultura folk son los recursos de tal interacción discursiva, cuya economía política se encuentra triangulada por la acción públicos diversos, las industrias culturales y el Estado” (23). The approach to culture as a resource (recurso), according to Cánepa, allows us to see not only how cultural identity and cultural rights has become the goal of political struggles, but also how the mis-en-scene of different cultural repertoires has become instrumental for these very struggles (16).

Focusing on memory, Ulfe defines in her introductory essay the public sphere as a point of convergence of different memories that negotiate, create, and recreate an idea of a nation which is not unique, but rather heterogeneous (37). She proposes an idea of a national public sphere as representing the encounter of official and unofficial cultural memories that converge and contest each other in the public sphere (44-45). Several of the ideas outlined in the two introductory essays are taken up and used by the contributors. In fact, one of the strengths of the volume is that the contributions draw on similar theoretical framework about the public sphere. Although from different empirical vantage points, the contributions approach a shared question about the role of culture in the contemporary public sphere and this makes the book seem coherent as an edited volume.

Whereas the majority of the essays in the volume focus on the national public sphere, a few contributions focus on local, regional, or even transnational contexts somewhat marginal from the national public sphere centralized in Lima. Salas explores the circulation of different stories in the regional public sphere of Cuzco, which narrate the miracle that gave origin to the Quyllurit’i pilgrimage. He argues that in spite of the many different versions of this story, most of them reproduce the same hegemonic categories of social differentiation (279). Santillán’s article explores the use of radio-novelas in the lowlands of Loreto to stimulate discussion about reproductive health. She shows how this particular media practice makes public certain types of social relations by putting them up for “intercultural discussion” (114). In this way, the radio program she studies help reconfigure the public sphere in Loreto. Huerta-Mercado’s excellent and humorous essay on the First Peruvian Gay Movement (Primer Movimiento Peruano) in New York City extends the inquiry about the role of culture in the public sphere to a transnational arena by showing how members of this New York-based group use “Peruvian culture” (here folklore dances and costumes) in the context of the Greenwich Village Gay parade to carve out a distinct space for themselves in the New York public sphere, but also to counter the discrimination they have faced as homosexuals in the Peruvian public sphere.

Perhaps the most compelling theme of the book is its speculation over the extent to which particular forms of political action and repertoires can be seen as constituting real possibilities for political enfranchisement and a more inclusive democratic project. To what extent, for example, can the disputes over the parameters of citizenship and of cultural politics materialize in better living conditions to the majority of the Peruvian population? Some essays are optimistic about what performative action can actually do—symbolically or materially—in people’s lives. This is the case of Huerta-Mercado and Leigh Raffo’s essays. Others are, if not pessimistic, then at least somewhat skeptical about the possibilities of inclusion. In her work on the museums of Lima as the classical example of knowledge institutions, Borea argues that in spite of attempts to renew their proposals and allow for more participation and criticism, the museums she studied are disconnected from the heterogeneity of Lima’s current population, including its new consumption and recreation patterns, and has only been able to produce very weak relations with the city as an urban platform (166).

Given that this volume is published and distributed by the National Council of Science, Technology and Technological Innovation (CONCYTEC), the book seems intended for a rather specialized academic audience in Peru. However, it is clearly of interest to a much larger audience than that which it will most likely reach due to the current political economy of academic publishing in which books published by small presses or NGO’s in the global south in languages other than English rarely reaches beyond narrow national audiences even when their theoretical sophistication supercedes much of what is currently published by major publishing houses in the United States and Europe.

In conclusion, while the book is about Peru and issues of cultural politics and public culture which are specific to the Peruvian situation, the majority of the contributions in the volume illuminates general questions such as structure versus agency, social change and transformation, and the role of power relations in shaping access to resources, representation, and cultural citizenship. Mirando la esfera pública desde la cultura en el Perú therefore inserts itself not only in anthropological debates about the role of culture in contemporary social life, but it will also be of interest to scholars of performance studies, cultural studies, and Latin American studies. I highly recommend this volume for students and teachers of performative practices in the Americas as well as for people preoccupied with contemporary urban life anywhere in the global south.


Ulla D. Berg (Ph.D., NYU 2007) is Postdoctoral Associate in the Departments of Latino and Hispanic Caribbean Studies and Anthropology at Rutgers University. Her research focuses on communicative practices in the context of transnational migration between Peru and the US. Her written work appears in Perú: El Legado de la Historia (Sevilla, 2001), Política Internacional (Lima, 2005), Latino Studies (2006), e-misférica (2006), and Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies (forthcoming 2008) and she is co-editor with Karsten Paerregaard of El Quinto Suyo: Transnacionalidad y Formaciones Diasporicas en la Migración Peruana (IEP, 2005).

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