Book Excerpt: “Museum of Consumption” by Graciela Montaldo

Museum of Consumption: The Archives of Mass Culture in Argentina (1880–1930) by Graciela Montaldo examines the emergence of mass culture and the tensions of this modern culture subject to the pressures of the market and politics. The book also traces the emergence of a cultural scene that constructed a frontier between elite and mass cultures during the modernization process.  This study belongs to the field of cultural studies. It lies at the intersection of numerous theoretical approaches such as theory of the masses, studies of consumer culture, modernity and modernism, intellectual history, gender studies, and theories of spectacle. Its singular archive was constructed especially for this book and includes memoirs, chronicles, testimonies, essays, and fictions, all of which it places into dialog with canonical texts.

Below is an excerpt from chapter 3, “Micro Acts of Violence”:

Formless, lacking the political and social articulation of “the people,” inside the masses some behaviors take on patterns that respond to different experiences and have differing cultural translations. An often-invisible power runs through such spaces, and within them one finds a tone ranging widely from class solidarity to political conspiracy, from an empowering protest to extralegal repression. In this chapter, I will explore how an emerging form of violence in the Argentine state in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries caused what might be termed “contamination” among popular cultural practices. Far from positing some causal relation among culture, violence, and politics, I will try to clarify certain disjunctions, what one might call short circuits, that ultimately mold the political behavior of Argentina’s cultural modernity. The paths these practices follow take shape within mass society, where they find the ideal setting for their own creation and reproduction. Within this framework, I will focus on the genealogy of a mimetic behavior among social classes, in order to understand how the violence attributed to the lower rungs of that world is transferred to the upper classes by means of cultural practices that transform and institutionalize themselves within state violence.

            The aforementioned behavior is linked to the beginnings of tango and offers a unique framework reflecting not only the working-class bordellos where this dance music originated but also tango’s appropriation by the upper classes in a nation that was undergoing profound transformations of social structure. As many studies have pointed out, the tango, owing to its appropriation of popular tastes through their canonization in Europe, was a cultural mechanism for forging national identity.[i] However, the phenomenon of tango was something more and shows the uses that the mixing of cultural practices among the different social sectors of Argentina produced. By means of mimesis and simulation, the tango allows us to see the ways in which the mass behavior traverses society: it no longer happens through those sectors lacking an established place in the formation of social identities but rather at the hands of “aristocratic” elements that become a violent collective, one that adopts the attributes that they themselves apply to the lower sectors. Those sectors incorporate that behavior into a logic of repression. At the end of the nineteenth century, men, and particularly young men of the upper classes, entered a maelstrom of mimesis, imitating certain working-class and marginal peoples based on what they learned in bordellos. This process blended social, sexual, and political violence. Its practices were marked by what Michael Taussig called “mimesis,” that human faculty wherein “nature that culture uses to create a now-beleaguered second nature.”

            The spread of tango owes much to the imitative behavior among Argentine classes, and later among the Europeans and Americans who adopted this “exotic dance.” In Argentina the institutionalization of political violence used the tango as a channel for expansion. It is the idea of “micro acts of violence” that best describes this mechanism, insofar as the term posits a sequence composed of intermittent scenes of violence that are provoked and imitated, and they are located inside and outside the legal order. In the tradition extending from Walter Benjamin to Giorgio Agamben, a school of thought in which violence is seen as a factor that both establishes and preserves law, and hence is an innate feature of the social world, the transmission of violence in a mobile and volatile society like turn-of-the-century Argentina presents its own unique characteristics. We are looking at a violence that manifests itself as a highly specific social and political mechanism, one that acts as a series of behaviors that emerge in the spaces and context of minority elements. The forms and practices of micro acts of violence are mise-en-scènes of the redefining of political pacts, in the moment that the society takes shape, the state is built and the nation defines itself.

            It is here that the violence attributed to the primitive functions in a space charged with tensions, in micro sequences, not only as the suspension of institutionality but also of the social pact itself. It involves what Slavoj Žižek calls systemic violence, those extremely subtle forms of coercion that undergird relations of domination and exploitation, and include the mere threat of violence. A series of small acts of violence quickly legitimizes and renders socially acceptable the outcasting of marginal peoples, making that action appear nothing more than one more function of mass culture. It is these micro acts of violence that define a kind of democracy, in Argentina, that will no longer manage without, during the whole twentieth-century, the uses of the different forms of violence that are simultaneously within and external to the state. The construction of the national state and those laws designed specifically to calm an atmosphere of generalized violence are therefore the framework for this analysis, and the tango will feature not so much a music and a dance but rather a social performance conducted among classes.

            Diverse studies of the tango have debated such topics as its musical origins (of black, creole, or Hispanic roots), the topology from which it arises (the suburbs, the bordello, the port), or its national identity (Argentine, Uruguayan, Spanish, Caribbean, Afro-Hispanic), according to the traditions in which authors desire to situate it. But almost all who write tango history agree on its popular origins, and beyond that, on the fact that the dance, music, and lyrics all began among marginal elements.[ii] Its outcast identity summons up a collection of negative images catalogued in the human body (it was danced by pardos, chinas,[iii] and immigrants), in the physical ambience (bordellos, tenements, and marginal and extremely precarious parts of the city), and in moral values (its agents are prostitutes, evil-doers, criminals, and pimps), and distilled into a type of primitive squalor, a violence found time and again in accounts of the period.


[i] Within the vast and highly diverse bibliography of writings about tango, I will here mention a few fundamental texts that help to understand the cultural and political dimensions of the phenomenon: see Matamoro, La ciudad del tango (Tango histórico y sociedad), Garramuño, Modernidades primitivas; Cozarinsky, Milongas, and Matallana, Qué saben los pitucos. See also the classics: Borges, Evaristo Carriego;Rossi, Cosas de negros; and Bates and Bates, La historia del tango.

[ii] This perspective appears in all sorts of studies. For example, Borges states: “Despite the differences that I have listed, which would be easy to enrich by questioning people from other Argentine cities such as La Plata or Rosario, my informants agree about one essential fact: that the tango originated in brothels. (The same was true of the date of origin: none of them date it earlier than the 1880 or later than 1890). (Borges, Evaristo Carriego, 159).

[iii] In Argentina the word “china” is used to indicate a rural woman. It is the female equivalent of the gaucho.

About the author: Graciela Montaldo is a Professor of Latin American studies at Columbia University. She specializes in modern Latin American Culture with a focus on contemporary cultural practices. She is coeditor of The Argentina Reader: History, Culture and Politics. She has published Rubén Darío: Viajes de un cosmopolita extremo (2013), Zonas Ciegas: Populismos y experimentos culturales en Argentina (2010), and A propriedade da Cultura (2004), among other books.

This book includes images and is in the Cambria Latin American Literatures and Cultures Series headed by Professor Román de la Campa (University of Pennsylvania).

Museum of Consumption is available in hardcover, paperback, and multiple digital formats. Order at the Cambria Press website.

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