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September 12, 2002
Nestor Garcia Canclini Consumers and Citizens: Globalization and Multicultural Conflicts Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001. 200 pp. Paper $19.95 (0816629870)
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Néstor García Canclini’s book Consumers and Citizens: Globalization and Multicultural Conflicts, originally published in Spanish by Grijalbo in 1995, is an important contribution to the contemporary debate on citizenship from the vantage point of Latin America. This English-language version, translated by George Yúdice, presents timely arguments for reevaluating the increasing influence of consumption in the definition of cultural policies. García Canclini argues that multiculturalism, the empowerment of civil society and the expansion of culture industries and global markets go hand in hand with the weakening of the role played by nation-states in defining symbolic references for social belonging. Local and national cultures and identities lose their autonomy as they converge with the exchange of messages and commodities around the world. This is a process that is highly concentrated in large cities, or"megacities"—mainly those with more ten million inhabitants—in a complex and asymmetrical way. García Canclini presents a controversial hypothesis in the book. He suggests that the cultural and aesthetic dimensions of consumption can perform a political role by defining megacities as the primary space where struggles and negotiation over identities emerge.

Consumers and Citizens is a book about tensions. As the subtitle indicates, it is about multicultural conflicts. The book is a scholarly project that departs from his anthological Culturas híbridas: Estrategias para Entrar y Salir de la Modernidad (Mexico: Grijalbo, Consejo Nacional de la Cultura y las Artes, 1990), translated as Hybrid Cultures: Strategies for Entering and Leaving Modernity (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995), and continues with more recent books such as Imaginarios urbanos (Buenos Aires: Eudeba, 1997) and Globalización imaginada (Buenos Aires: Paidós, 1999). He is interested in the disjunction between homogenizing social imaginaries of global modernization and local and popular counter-imaginaries, which constitute the symbolic dimension of cultural and political practices. García Canclini’s personal trajectory contains hints of such investigative interests. He is an Argentine national, educated at the University of Paris within the framework of Marxist and Gramscian social theories and exiled in Mexico in the last two decades, where he teaches urban and cultural anthropology at Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana. He makes it clear that Consumers and Citizens is a collection of articles that presents his “personal opinions on various polemics [in the] area of urban cultures” (34). And he does so with eloquence and the support of empirical research. The essayistic genre provides elements for establishing a dialogue among different disciplines such as anthropology, sociology, urbanism, and communication and cultural studies. However, it presents a problem to the reader in search for conclusive remarks or thoroughly developed models for understanding the conflicting relationship between consumption and citizenship. The book is open ended, and the articles should be read bearing in mind the author’s own cautionary note about his personal and insightful beliefs. One should therefore acknowledge that Consumers and Citizens presents the traditional philosophical tension between doxa (opinion) and episteme (systematized knowledge).

The English version of this book is distinct from the original in Spanish in two ways. First, it contains a new preface written by the author clarifying the underlying logic regarding the context for the production of the ten essays. Second, it contains a thoughtful introduction by the translator, which presents and contextualizes the book both in García Canclini’s intellectual trajectory and in the current scholarship on globalization, cultural studies, and postcolonialism. Yúdice’s introduction focuses on the “currency of hybridity” (xi), heterogeneity, popular culture, and the politics of identity and difference, issues that have constantly framed García Canclini’s writings in the last decade.

In his own new preface, García Canclini establishes market globalization and multiculturalism as the contexts of transformation in the notion and practice of citizenship. On the one hand, he presents globalization as an uneven process of exchange of messages and commodities that “reorders differences and inequalities without eliminating them” (3). On the other hand, he stresses multiculturalism as the site of heterogeneous intersections that shows how ethnic and national identities are uneven hybrid constructions. Moreover, he challenges the assumptions that current processes of modernization replace the local with the global, and rejects the arguments that economic neoliberalism is the only way to participate in this process. One of his main theoretical proposals to redefine cultural policies is the establishment of transnational audiovisual spaces in Latin America—through mass media such as television, video, and cinema—which he defines as an alternative for critically dealing with globalizing market forces and for articulating new possibilities of social and cultural identification in the space of megacities.

In the first part of the book, García Canclini investigates the globalized city as the multicultural scenario in which new forms of cultural consumption and citizenship emerge. He proposes to rethink urban and cultural citizenship as a political strategy by focusing on how citizenship could be constituted through the exercise of consumption. He also proposes to reconceptualize popular culture. However, García Canclini is less interested in engaging the silenced voices of popular social groups or the insurgent forms of political citizenship than in analyzing the formation of urban imaginaries and cultural situations through which these struggles occur.

In Chapter 1, García Canclini describes consumption not only as a practice of irrational spending, but also as part of a process of social communication. He suggests that “consumption is good for thinking” (37), even thought it is a difficult vantage point from which to position oneself. Methodologically, this means expanding Marxist theories of consumption into the framework of urban anthropology and sociology in which consumption is part of an “interactive sociopolitical rationality” (39). He considers consumption as a marker of symbolic rituals of distinction and as a site where the relationship between private and public spheres is continuously transformed. According to García Canclini, consumption can be taken as part of the exercise of citizenship if three aspects are guaranteed: more access and diversification in cultural commodities, multidirectional consumer control, and democratic participation. However, he is less clear about how these goals can be achieved politically, leaving out suggestions for dealing with the power relations behind such communicative rationality.

Chapter 2 addresses the research on cultural consumption and identity formation in Mexico City that he has conducted with a team that includes anthropologists, sociologists, communication scholars, and art historians. García Canclini proposes that the megacity is a “chaotic polyphony of voices” (51) that dissolves the meaning of global discourse. He presents transformation in the cultures of large cities in analogy to the paradigm shift in social studies. He suggests revising the purpose of ethnographic studies, as well as the methods of urban anthropology and sociology, to make sense of the use of public spaces. The findings from his team’s research on cultural consumption and on the Second Festival of Mexico City, for example, present a fragmented metropolis with considerable heterogeneity and segregation of cultural consumers. The decreasing use of traditional public cultural facilities such as concert halls, museums, theaters, movie theaters, and libraries in the city coincides with the increasing use of television, radio, and video, which reinforces social and educational inequality and the tendency to domestic seclusion in response to a hostile urban environment. The speculative logic of urban sprawl in Mexico City, which mainly displaces working-class populations further from the city center, is directly related to the growth of domestic entertainment through electronic media and the decrease in inter- and intraneighborhood life. It is not a coincidence the dispersal and fragmentation of media culture and audiences go together with practices of suburbanization and the consolidation of car culture. This scenario makes it harder to create theoretical models for describing the general cultural constitution of the city and for defining a unified urban image either to its citizens or to actors of globalization such as multinational media and financial corporations.

García Canclini elaborates this argument in Chapter 3, which presents the fragmenting effect of consumption in the experience of cities and in the dissolution of simulated “monadic identities” (68). Consumption changes the process of identification by changing the imagined and the perceived heterogeneity of urban spaces and their inhabitants. These changes are related to the reorganization of cultural habits and of the public sphere through the abandonment of traditional spaces of the historic city and the occupation of new spaces of collective consumption, such as shopping malls, by new generations. García Canclini wonders whether cultural and communicational resources can bring together dispersed populations in the megacity (74). In response, he suggests that cultural policies have to start from the acknowledgement of heterogeneity, and that they need the support of democratic practices to promote the dialogue between local traditions and culture industries in the formation of shared imaginaries (75–76). One could deduce from García Canclini’s arguments that the fragmentation of consumption relates to the multiplication of forms of citizenship. Even though this is a less abstract model than the one offered by the Enlightenment, it does not seem to resolve the problem of access to consumption and, in this logic, to the rights of citizenship.

Chapter 4 explores how different narrations of multiculturalism, that is, the different cultural forms and expressions that shape contemporary megacities, relate to new modes of cultural consumption by means of mass communication. One can observe this phenomenon in a sprawling metropolis like Mexico City. García Canclini proposes that the answer to how “cultural studies encompass the dispersed meanings of a large city…is largely a narrative one” (80), and wonders whether it is still possible to rethink the traditional concept of flânerie—the mode of perception that approaches the city as an object of consumption—in the context of the mediated megacity. García Canclini replaces the emblematic urban image of the shop window with the vision of the contemporary city as a video clip that is a “succession of fragmentary glimpses” (83) and the simultaneity of diverse historical temporalities. In this context, he argues that the experience of fragmented social imaginaries and multicultural conflicts in the megacity dismantles the flâneur‘s expectation of order and renders the possibility of large narratives even more difficult, if not impossible. This insight certainly complicates if not contradicts the book’s initial hypothesis, which supports that consumption and global modernization can transform urban and cultural citizenship into an overarching political strategy. García Canclini’s expects that multicultural narratives take place by means of a unifying national audiovisual space and not in the physical space of large cities alone, but he is not clear about how communication media can guarantee solid foundation to political practices and to the strengthening of social rights and identities.

In the second part of the book, García Canclini investigates the destabilization of local and national identities in countries in the margins of globalization—such as in Latin America—and under the influence of transnational multimedia markets. He is concerned with how the relationship between multiculturalism, mass-communication policies, and cultural consumption redefines the social construction of identities, and focuses on how cultural policies have been negotiated globally in free-trade agreements since the 1990s.

In Chapter 5, García Canclini argues that national cultural identities are narrated constructs. Radio, cinema, and television, he contends, have substantially contributed to the definition of these constructs and to the meaning of cultural citizenship in the twentieth century. Under the current expansion of capitalist modernization on a global scale, the symbolic production of identities has extended even further beyond national boundaries, creating tension with local and regional cultures. Cultural identities are hybrid and no longer displayed primarily in the space of national museums; they circulate in the diffused multimedia space of communication technologies. As García Canclini points out, ’Identity today, even among broad sectors of the popular classes, is polyglot, multiethnic, migrant, made from elements that cut across various cultures" (91). Multiculturalism does have its setbacks: In the case of world cinema, for example, one can observe more diverse forms of expression, but also see more uneven conditions of production given the control of resources by private corporations, as well as the weakening effect of state regulation. Globalization and trade liberalization have had an impact on the relationship between national identities and cultural citizenship mostly through mass media and the power of culture industries. The challenge in this case, the author suggests, is to study the intersections between local and global, traditional and modern forms of cultural production, since these are part of the process that negotiates collective and individual identities. García Canclini believes that, as constructs, identities are historically and socially situated, and that it is necessary to redefine them both as symbolic representation and as political practice, but he does not present alternatives to how this project can be implemented within the context of asymmetrical power relations.

Chapters 6 and 7 focus on the relationship between citizenship and spectatorship. The author departs from an analysis of conflicts between cultural practices and neoliberal economic strategies based on disagreements about the control of transnational audiovisual space, which is the sphere of mass communication led by large media corporations, during the 1993 GATT negotiations. The United States’ request for unrestricted circulation of audiovisual products confirmed the domination of North American entertainment and cultural businesses in this industry, raising the stakes for both the survival of national cinemas and promoting the dissemination of video products, especially in Latin America. The North American culture industry’s hegemony is evidence of what García Canclini describes as a “U.S. expansion of spectacles” (98) and its implied aesthetic unilateralism around the globe. Such practice has large impact on cultural policies and politics and even greater impact on the population of marginal megacities, considering that 70 percent of them “live an almost exclusive connection with the cultural industries” (99). Mass media has become the means for creating the spectacular images of political candidates and for defining a consensus that does not take into consideration the heterogeneity of urban audiences. Citizens around the world, and specifically in Latin America, have become multimedia spectators, most of which are “under the influence of a U.S. repertoire” (115). As they become spectators they risk becoming more complacent and politically demobilized. To counter this tendency, García Canclini suggests the reformulation of mass-media communication policies. These policies should reinforce the role of the state in redefining national, continental, and global relations, in articulating public infrastructure and private interests, and in including multimedia policies in national political agendas.

Chapter 8 reflects on a similar situation created within the context of the 1994 Latin American presidential summits in Cartagena and Miami. The problem pointed out by García Canclini is that transnational economic agreements such as these summits, NAFTA, and Mercosur do not address the cultural and historical heterogeneity of different regions of Latin America. Despite their interest in integrating markets, these treaties have had little interest in the possibilities and problems of social and cultural integration. Developmentist state policies in the 1970s, which supported national capitalist economies, validated this view because they considered popular and traditional sectors to be obstacles to modernization. This project, however, does not work as well under globalization. The relationship between globalization and multiculturalism points to the lack of flexibility in such restricting models of modernization and faces a paradox: The circulation of commodities and messages has increased through transnational markets, but the quality of cultural production has decreased proportionally, even if we consider the production of cultural industries. In order to advance beyond this impasse, García Canclini suggests that cultural integration under the aegis of free trade requires constitutional and political reforms to guarantee rights and access to information and consumption by different social and cultural groups. He properly argues that privatization and market liberalism have not made things better and that change can only happen with the reformulation of the role of the state and of civil society as arbiters of this process.

In the final part of the book, García Canclini returns to several topics addressed in the previous chapters. He attempts to provide for a more systematic discussion of the theoretical implications of the tension between consumption and citizenship. He provides some suggestions to rethink policies of citizenship for multicultural societies, mostly in Latin America. He points to the crisis of the public sphere, which has increasingly spurred debates about citizenship, democracy, and globalization in the last two decades. Political transaction and representation have increasingly shifted from urban spaces into the simulated space of televised politics. To rethink citizenship means to revise the negotiation of identities and to call into question the role of the state, popular classes, civil society, and intellectuals in the aggravating transformation of spaces of political negotiation. His epistemological choice is to focus on the cultural and everyday-life aspects rather than on the political and institutional elements of this process. He suggests reconceptualizing the notion and exercise of power, the action of subaltern urban groups, and the structure of intercultural relations. Together these three elements are intimately related to the uneven processes of cultural production in the physical and symbolic space of megacities.

In his book, García Canclini is particularly invested in understanding how multicultural policies can be integrated through transnational markets and civil society. The state, global markets, and local civil societies mediate consumption and how their transforming role relates to the exercise of citizenship. The relationship between multiple actors, he argues, redefines traditional differences between public and private, local and global, reality and simulation, symbolic representation and political practice, and citizenship and spectatorship. In several situations throughout the book, the author draws attention to the aesthetic dimension of cultural consumption as a potential means for reconceptualizing citizenship. For him, aesthetic inquiry is “still the means whereby differences of quality and intensity, perspective and experimentation emerge” (153). Despite the valor of this project, however, it continuously stumbles with the paradoxical fact that the production of audiovisual spaces and the consumption of mass-culture commodities are often under the control of transnational corporations, which continue to manage “unilateral [symbolic] repertoires” (122).

Consumers and Citizens places the discussion on globalization and multicultural conflicts back into the debate on modernity and modernization. The collection of articles in the book has close affinity with cultural-anthropology scholarship in both hemispheres. It resonates with other Latin American investigations on modernization, hybridity, and multiculturalism by scholars such as José Joaquin Brunner (Mexico), Renato Ortiz (Brazil), Beatriz Sarlo (Argentina), and Massimo Canevacci (Italy/Brazil). It also establishes close dialogue with North American researchers such as James Holston and Arjun Appadurai, who have extensively published on the topic of citizenship. In this sense, the book itself is a project with multicultural and transnational aspirations. Consumers and Citizens may be usefully read alongside a collection of articles published in the Winter 2002 issue of Public Cultureon new social imaginaries produced by scholars from the U.S.-based Center for Transnational Studies. This complementary reading allows for the revision of political claims and for theoretical fine-tuning in the debate about cultural citizenship since the Spanish-language version of Consumers and Citizens was published in 1995.

García Canclini’s notion of cultural consumers as citizens is important to the project of redefining the notion and the practices of civil society. The collection of articles in the book, however, tends to raise more questions than it answers. Maybe this is a sign of the anxious time in which we live. He continuously reinforces arguments that “Latin American countries are hybrid societies where different forms of disputing and negotiating the meaning of modernity are in constant contention” (140) and that the “coexistence of ethnicities and cultures [and] their unequal hybridization do not constitute a happy peaceful world family” (153). One of the two dilemmas in his aesthetic and political project is how to deconstruct the confusion among distinct aspects of multicultural formations in contemporary globalized societies without celebrating any society in particular. The other problem is the ambiguous relationship between the praise of hybridity and cultural citizenship and the depoliticizing practices of neoliberalism. Even though García Canclini questions the hegemonic role of neoliberalism, he sees the market as a cultural phenomenon that may be the source for a common symbolic ground—or an alternative universal—among different cultural identities. This project should be seen with caution, since some of its challenges remain to be answered. These doubts constitute the puzzle that has haunted the work of prominent analysts of neoliberalism such as Manuel Castells and Jorge Castañeda in an analogous way. How does one guarantee rights to consumption as a means to assure rights to culture, to citizenship, and, ultimately, to the city? How is it possible to conceive of policies and a renewed public sphere that acknowledge the conflicts of multiculturalism and keep the dialectical tension among different forms of negotiation over cultural identities? Globalization has certainly raised the stakes of citizenship, and, as García Canclini himself suggested, the challenge in redefining it is to “rethink the real together with the possible” (161).

Zeuler R. Lima
School of Architecture, Washington University in St, Louis

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