Wednesday, May 18, 2005

When is ‘modern’ not ‘modern’ at all?

Have Latin America’s indigenous peoples broken with the past in their search for identity politics? According to Goldsmith College’s Olivia Harris in the weekly LSE seminar, the record appears ambiguous. Certainly there are communities in places like the Bolivian highlands who are claiming a national identity which harks back to a time prior to the emergence of ‘modern’ Latin America, but it is also ahistorical.

Harris argues that the actual reconstitution of the past – through the reconstitution of past tradition and rituals – is a very modern process. It’s not an exact fit with the original version, but a modified variation on it; an ‘invention of tradition’ if you will. As an example she cited a community which was prepared to accept a family’s claims of royal blood and even organised a celebration to mark it. But when the family tried to claim royal rights and tribute, the community interceded; it would allow title but not actual practice, thereby highlighting the way in which contemporary acceptance of democracy has worked its way into an understanding of the past.

‘Modernity’ in Latin America is especially confusing given the ambiguity with which the term has been used. Today modern understanding of the state assumes acceptance of a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic society; by contrast, during the 19th century when many of the Latin American states were in the process of nation-building, modernity meant a homogenous, preferably white society styled on those of Europe.

Even more confusing though is that 19th century assumption of modernity was linked to colonial values which dominated official thinking in the region during the previous three centuries. And from the 16th to 20th centuries the indigenous were commonly seem as un-modern and inferior, a symbol of Latin America’s inability to catch up with the North.

Yet what is really interesting is that just as the ‘modern’ state became more accommodating and accepting of cultural and ethnic difference during the 1990s, indigenous peoples indicated their desire to turn their back on that modernity.

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