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Néstor García Canclini: An anthropologist of the contemporary

A Brazilian intellectual produces pioneering analyses of the paradoxes of Latin American modernity

Cortesia Fil Guadalajara / Natalia Fregoso

Last September, Argentinean anthropologist and essayist Néstor García Canclini assumed his appointment as the Olavo Setúbal chair of Arts, Culture, and Science at the Institute of Advanced Studies at the University of São Paulo (IEA-USP). As a researcher of Mexican popular culture, the impact of new technologies on the cultural sector, and the role played by youth in contemporary societies, since assuming the chair Canclini has been investigating how cultural institutions in Brazil, Mexico, and Argentina have been restructuring in an era marked by electronic development. A professor at the Metropolitan Autonomous University in Mexico, as well as at the National University of La Plata and the University of Buenos Aires in Argentina, during his 60-year career Canclini—nationalized as a Mexican citizen in 2000—has also taught at Italian, Spanish, and U.S. institutions. A philosopher by training, the subjects of his scientific investigations are not restricted to the field of ideas but instead stem from the desire to examine concrete reality. Out of these interests come pioneering studies on diverse subjects, including the artistic avant-garde, Latin American modernity, and globalization.

Canclini was born in La Plata, Argentina, but had to go into exile in Mexico after the military coup in 1976. From his home in the Mexican capital, after a career that has been marked by frequent travel across borders, the researcher laments the impossibility of coming to Brazil due to the limitations imposed by the pandemic. In this interview with Pesquisa FAPESP Canclini talks about his more than 50-year relationship with Brazil, discusses the preliminary results of research being conducted at the Institute for Advanced Studies (IEA), and reflects on his studies involving emerging phenomena such as social media and algorithms.

Age 81
Field of expertise
Cultural anthropology, cultural policy, and latin american societies
Autonomous university of mexico
Educational background
Bachelor’s degree (1966) and doctorate in philosophy (1975) from the national university of la plata and a second phd in philosophy (1978) from the university of paris x nanterre
Published works
49 books—28 coauthored and 21 as sole author—135 scientific articles

Your background is in philosophy, but for the last 40 years you’ve been dedicated to anthropological research. How did this transition between the two disciplines take place?
My undergraduate degree and both of my doctorates are in philosophy. The theses I defended in 1975 at the National University of La Plata, in Argentina, and in 1978 at Paris X Nanterre University, which I attended on a scholarship from the CONICET [Argentine Council for Scientific and Technological Investigations], analyzed the relationship between phenomenology, structuralism, and Marxism. These were the three great philosophical currents in the social sciences during that time. From the beginning, I was interested in philosophy because it fosters the development of theoretical reflection, but I wanted to engage with empirical objects of study, which led me to social and artistic movements. While the social sciences allow us to analyze the structure and functioning of the real world, artistic movements bring to light issues from the field of the imagination. In the early 1970s, when I started teaching at the National University of La Plata, I was teaching philosophical anthropology. In order to bridge the gap between the two disciplines, I studied the work of anthropologists, especially Claude Lévi-Strauss [1908–2009] of France. Until arriving in Mexico, in 1976, I had never done fieldwork. But I quickly became enchanted with the artisanal handicrafts and popular Mexican festivals. I formed a team of researchers with my students, and we traveled frequently to Michoacán, a state with a large indigenous population of the Purépecha ethnic group. I began to study something that was little understood, even though there already existed various anthropological studies on handicraft-producing communities. I relied on this knowledge to go further, investigating how these products circulate. I discovered that artisans designed their works with their buyers, the tourists and urban markets, in mind. They knew that masks worn at traditional festivals would be hung on the walls of modern apartments. I analyzed the processes of production, circulation, consumption, and appropriation of this craftwork and this gave me a different perspective for working with contemporary art. Part of the study’s results were published in the book Las culturas populares en el capitalismo [Nueva Imagen, 1978], which received the Casa de las Américas Essay Prize in 1981, and was published in Brazil by Editora Brasiliense in 1989. [It was also published by the U. of Texas Press with the title Transforming Modernity, in 1993.] At the same time, I never stopped doing philosophy, because I’m interested in the theoretical. But I think it’s a discipline that needs to be grounded in empirical objects, in spaces that cannot be reduced to ideas.

The paradoxes of Latin American modernity constitute one of your principal subjects of research. What are they?
I dealt with this theme in Culturas híbridas: Estratégias para entrar e sair da modernidade [Hybrid Cultures: Strategies for entering and exiting modernity] [Edusp, 1998], which was recognized by the Association of Latin American Studies as the best book in Spanish about Latin America published in 1991 and 1992. In order to develop this work, I found important support in a classic text by the literary critic Roberto Schwartz, As ideias fora do lugar [Ideas out of place], published for the first time in 1973 in the journal Estudos, from the Brazilian Center for Analysis and Planning [CEBRAP]. This essay debates, in a precursory way, the existing mismatch between the Brazilian intellectual, cultural modernization that’s based on formal laws and principles, and the persistence of what Schwartz calls the “culture of favor,” or culture of informality, which contradicts the presumptive modern structuring of society. One central point of my arguments is that in Latin America modernity does not replace traditions, but that they coexist. We need to understand how this coexistence works within the social structure and within individuals themselves. The tension between social reality and laws that aim to be modern also occurs in other Latin American countries. Each managed this contradiction differently. In nations with large indigenous populations, such as Bolivia, Peru, Guatemala and, to some extent, Mexico, the traditional habits and customs of indigenous communities have been incorporated into legislation and coexist with modernity. This contrasts by comparison with Brazil, where the indigenous population is a minority and is limited to its territories. For some time, social science research—especially in anthropology—has been making efforts to understand the situation of indigenous peoples in Brazil. But it has only recently been recognized as an important societal issue.

In Latin America, there is a contradiction. Modernity does not replace traditions, rather, they coexist

What are the consequences of this tension in Latin American societies?
The tension between formality and informality persists, which forces us to consider it constitutive of Latin American nations. In recent decades, the culture of informality has increasingly shifted towards illegality, such that mafias have expanded their territorial control, with greater influence on the organization of society and culture itself. In northern Mexico, for example, the most popular musical genre is Narcocorrido, songs that exalt the achievements of drug traffickers and other forms of illegality. We cannot simply entirely dismiss a musical genre. We must ask ourselves what causes this social permeability.

In addition to Latin American modernity, globalization has also been a central subject of your thinking.
I started working on this theme 20 years ago, when I noticed an increase in segregationist processes, supported by nationalist discourses and the exaltation of regionalism, which have spread to different parts of the world. This is the case with the separation of the United Kingdom from the European Union, “Brexit,” and the sociopolitical movement that emerged in Argentina 20 years ago, pushing the province of Mendonza—the main wine-producing region in the country, and a source of its economic strength—towards independence. With the pandemic, this syndrome was accentuated. At the same time, financial and economic globalization continues at an expansive pace. There are several explanations for the desire for deglobalization. One is the persistence of age-old nationalist or regionalist sentiments. Another is that globalization has harmed certain sectors of the population. The rise of right-wing or ultra-right movements in Europe, the election of political leaders such as Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, seem to result from—among other reasons—a growing malaise generated by globalization. The social sciences have been working on these issues for 25 years. The book What is Globalization – Misconceptions of Globalism: Answers to Globalization, by the German sociologist Ulrich Beck [1944–2015], centers the debate on the transfers of factories from North American and European metropolises to Asian or African countries where the exploitation of workers is greater. In this scenario, there was a reduction in jobs and a worsening of social inequalities around the world. This has generated social and emotional malaise, provoking a desire to organize against globalization. The dynamic of deglobalization re-emerged with the pandemic. The accumulation of vaccines in ten developed countries is a scandal that contradicts the logic of globalization.

Reproduction Canclini assumes his appointment as the Olavo Setúbal Chair of Art, Culture and Science at IEA-USP during a virtual ceremony, in September 2020Reproduction

Artistic vanguards, algorithms, and social media: where does your interest in studying emerging phenomena like these come from?
I have various motivations to work with these themes. At the beginning of my professional career, I researched artistic, literary, and filmmaking vanguards, attracted by the innovation movement and the curiosity to understand what resources are needed to innovate. This led me to study the sociology of art. One of the first studies I did involved establishing correlations between the artistic avant-garde and economic developmentalism in Argentina during the 1970s. I tried to study not only the vanguards, but their implications for society as well. There are analogies between the cases of Argentina and Brazil. In both, the artistic vanguards were driven by economic sectors linked to industrial innovation. In Argentina, Grupo Di Tella, a household appliance and auto manufacturer, financed the first vanguard activities. In Brazil, the first Bienal de São Paulo, in 1951, received funds from the entrepreneur and patron Francisco Matarazzo Sobrinho [1898–1977]. A second aspect that motivates me to study emerging themes is the perception that the international system of political parties is in decline. Many parties no longer represent the majority social sectors of their populations, and form corrupt alliances with businessmen. This generated depoliticization and decreased citizen involvement. The citizenry has sought to reorganize itself through feminist, ecological, ethnic, race, or other social movements. Our anachronistic political institutions, unable to adapt to the current complexity of our societies, makes these groups assume the representation for excluded sectors, such as women, African Americans, indigenous peoples, and young people. That’s where my interest in another emerging movement comes from, involving the role of younger generations in social life over the past 30 years. In the early 2010s, we assembled a team of Mexican and Spanish researchers to analyze the relationship between youth, urban culture, and digital networks. We discovered that young people have expanded their role in organizing and mobilizing for their rights and in innovations in technology, communications, the arts, literature, and media. First of all, I’m interested in emerging phenomena because I believe that young people, indigenous people, African Americans, and feminists are sources of societal transformation. Secondly, out of an affective need to maintain hope.

Why, at this point in your academic career, did you decide to focus on institutions?
Many researchers are critical of the reorganization of public life that took place because of neoliberalism. On the other hand, in recent years we have argued that it’s important to preserve institutions, especially cultural centers, universities, public hospitals, spaces for parliamentary deliberation, and the justice system. Even if some of these institutions have been corrupted, it’s important that we work to restore their dignity. This puts us in an ambivalent situation. We develop critical thinking and doubt the effectiveness of institutions. At the same time, we know we cannot do without them. We need to invest in their renewal and, to do this, we need to have available a more refined understanding of the ways in which they respond to the conflicts of contemporary social life. Our institutions aren’t just facing a crisis of governance. The challenges also involve the decomposing fabric of these institutions. Furthermore, the way institutions deal with transformation in contemporary societies is anachronistic. This conclusion entails a search for concrete actions. For example, we have to identify ways to reduce bureaucracy by using digital resources that allow for streamlining procedures. These resources exist, but they’re insufficient and are hindered by the fact that only part of the population has access to digital connectivity.

How is the research you’re conducting at the IEA going?
The research focuses on cultural institutions. We want to understand the restructuring of their role during this age of electronic development and new directions in territorial claims. This subject has been the object of research developed since 2015 at the Center for Advanced Latin American Studies (CALAS), based at the University of Guadalajara, in Mexico. The results were published last year in the book Ciudadanos reemplazados por algoritmos [Citizens replaced by algorithms], which can be downloaded for free on the internet. The study will soon be published in Portuguese. After five previous chairs, I learned that I was to be the first foreigner to assume the position as the Olavo Setúbal chair. I understand this initiative is an effort by USP to strengthen relations with Latin American academic and social life. Their selection brings challenges due to the geographic distance and my partial knowledge of the Brazilian context, despite having been in the country more than two dozen times. We face these limitations by offering two openings for postdoctoral researchers, who are working with me on this scientific investigation. Forty-one candidates applied for the vacancies. Juan Ignacio Brizuela of Argentina, who studied international relations, and Sharine Machado Cabral Melo, educated in social communications and now a cultural administrator at the National Arts Foundation (FUNARTE) in São Paulo, were selected.

Informality was diverted towards illegality. Mafias have expanded their territorial and cultural influence

To what extent has the pandemic impacted the the research?
Brizuela and Melo are working on distinct but complementary projects. Brizuela is investigating Points of Culture, a program created by the federal government in 2004 that provides for the development of an interconnected network of cultural spaces, especially in vulnerable communities and territories. Since it was the subject of his doctoral thesis, he’s now analyzing how these spaces are operating under the conditions imposed by the pandemic. We generally understand a cultural institution as being a museum, cinema, or theater that operates in a fixed location. By contrast, most of the spaces in this program are organized in an open, flexible manner, designed to meet local needs and provide different types of musical, cultural, or technological equipment.

Melo is researching the Aldir Blanc Law, enacted by the National Congress in June of last year as a result of the mobilization of artists, workers, and cultural managers. The legislation allocates R$3 billion to states and municipalities to develop emergency actions for the cultural sector during the state of public calamity caused by the pandemic. It’s an innovative law, both because of the high value of the resources provided and because of the operating rules. To access the funding, municipalities need to have cultural councils. Once this condition is met, they can manage their funds according to local needs and demands. Our research found that this requirement motivated the creation of hundreds of culture councils. This means that the economic stimulus also served to foster the social connectivity of artists and professionals in these areas. The approval of this law is paradoxical: it takes place at a time when Brazil and other Latin American countries are reducing their budgets for this sector. It sets a good example of how a resistance movement within civil society can bring innovation, going against traditional policies. I’m following the progress of the research in Brazil from here in Mexico City, through periodic meetings with the doctoral fellows. I’m also investigating what’s happening in Mexico in relation to social movements and policies to address the artistic emergency caused by the pandemic. The focus of the study is Brazil, but we’re developing a comparative work with analyses of the situations in Mexico and Argentina.

Is it possible to talk about preliminary results yet? What are they?
What has been found so far is that, like other Latin American countries, Brazil is also seeing a movement toward deinstitutionalization of culture, that is, the weakening of traditional institutions such as museums, cultural centers, theaters, and cinemas, accompanied by a loss of space to exercise citizenship. At the same time, there are processes reactivating social and cultural life, such as those put in motion by the Aldir Blanc Law, initiated by community-based organizations working within their local contexts. In Mexico, we’re living with a curious situation. In 2015, the former National Council for Culture and the Arts was transformed into the Secretariat of Culture, elevating its status within the government’s organizational hierarchy. However, their budget remained the same. During the pandemic, there haven’t been any programs developed to support these sectors.

How did your relationship with Brazil begin?
I began traveling to Brazil when I was quite young, about 20 years old. My family is evangelical, from the Baptist Church, which I attended until I was 16 years old. Then I got involved with an ecumenical Christian student movement that exists in several countries and has a broad social appeal. In this environment, I began to reflect on themes that weren’t covered well at the university, such as the relationship between Christianity and Marxism. This movement was very strong in Brazil, associated with the literacy campaigns promoted by Paulo Freire [1921–1997] [see article “Universal Pedagogue,” page 74]. I met a lot of people who worked in these movements and I participated in congresses in Brazil. I’ve been to Brazil many times as part of my academic work. I soon became interested in Brazilian society and culture, especially the music. I learned Portuguese by reading social science literature and listening to people speak. I gave conferences and taught courses in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Brasília, and Salvador. I participated twice in the Mercosul Biennial, in Porto Alegre. In 1967, I watched an experimental theater production for the first time, a play by Augusto Boal [1931–2009]. We became friends in 1971, when he went into exile in Argentina. I invited him to participate in my courses on aesthetics and contemporary art. At the beginning of my academic career, I became close with Brazilian intellectuals such as the literary critic Heloísa Buarque de Holanda, sociologists Sérgio Miceli and Renato Ortiz, anthropologist Antonio Augusto Arantes, and art critic José Teixeira Coelho Netto, as well as artists such as Regina Silveira. In the 1990s, I participated in a comparative study on cultural consumption in São Paulo, Mexico City, Buenos Aires, and Santiago, with support from the Latin American Council of Social Sciences [CLACSO]. In São Paulo, Miceli and Arantes led the work. I taught a lot of students and was an advisor to Brazilian students who came to Mexico to do postgraduate studies at the Department of Anthropology at Metropolitan Autonomous University.

Societies are moved not only through the social regularities studied by the social sciences, but also by imaginaries

What was the impact of the pandemic on the life of an intellectual like yourself, who’s used to moving freely across borders?
In all professions and trades, the pandemic changed the way we do things. Those who can work remotely are better protected, but this type of activity creates all kinds of problems, including with mental health. We’ve all had to suspend travel and compromise our international interactions at a time when they’re needed more than ever. The main loss, for me, was not being able to be present at the inauguration of the chair’s research work, in September. The appointment only lasts one year, and I doubt that it will be possible to travel to Brazil before August. We know that the vaccine reduces risks, but it doesn’t eliminate them, and in Mexico, as in Brazil, the contagion is still out of control. In the context of the pandemic, the chair has been a very important stimulus and has given meaning to my daily work. The support from IEA-USP and the exchanges with the doctoral fellows have been fundamental to me feeling alive, intellectually and emotionally. In a broad sense, I would say that the pandemic situation is a stimulus to rethink how, in both our countries so many contradictions are converted into catastrophes. It also motivates me to reflect on a topic that has interested me for years and is at the center of my investigations: the relationship between institutions, applications, and platforms. Will apps replace institutions? I don’t think so, but it needs to be studied. Much of what we used to do in institutions we no longer do. For example, in several countries, we can’t go to the cinema and theater. These institutions have not reopened or have only partially reopened. We took refuge in apps, and the online platform owners got stronger. Zoom had only 10 million subscribers at the end of 2019 and, in March 2020, expanded its number of users to 300 million. This is not simply an economic change, but a transformation in the way we organize ourselves socially.

You are an academic who writes fiction. How do these elements work together?
I have empirical objects that I analyze scientifically, with academic rigor, while at the same time I work with social imaginaries. My book A globalização imaginada [The imagined globalization] [Iluminuras, 2003], investigates imaginaries that drive and oppose globalization and the sociocultural configurations we build through imagination and creativity. The basis of my argument is that societies are moved not only through the regularities studied by the social sciences, but also by imaginaries—the material writers, visual artists, and filmmakers work on. I had already written fiction and poems, and included short fictional episodes in some academic essays, mostly in my book O mundo inteiro como lugar estranho [Edusp, 2020] [The entire world as a foreign land]. Meanwhile, Pistas falsas: Uma ficção antropológica [False clues: An anthropological fiction] [Itaú Cultural/Iluminuras, 2020] is a novel. It tells the story of a Chinese archaeologist who comes to Latin America. It’s a fictional story based on empirically verifiable facts and conversations I overheard during my research. The game of fiction isn’t simply a game of invention, of imagining things that didn’t happen. It involves the search for different types of access to what we experience and study.