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The Insubordination of Signs: Political Change, Cultural Transformation, and Poetics of the Crisis and Masculine/Feminine: Practices of Difference(s).

Nelly Richard, The Insubordination of Signs: Political Change, Cultural Transformation, and Poetics of the Crisis and Masculine/Feminine: Practices of Difference(s), translated by Silvia R. Tandeciarz and Alice A. Nelson, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004.

Readers in cultural studies will welcome the English translation of two works by Nelly Richard that encapsulate her work on expressive culture in Chile during and since the Pinochet dictatorship. At the forefront of the opposition to the regime's repressive hold on Chile, Richard's work is among the most cited on the art of resistance. This transplanted cultural critic from France is recognized as an authoritative voice on Chilean visual arts and literature. Together with her discussions of relevant theory (primarily feminist and deconstructionist in the books considered here), she has helped define cultural studies in the Southern Cone. Much of the published work on Chile in recent years has had a "post-dictatorship" focus on the country's transition to democracy; the translations of Richard's work, covering the dictatorship and its aftermath, offer an even deeper understanding of this significant period.

The essays included in The Insubordination of Signs were originally published between 1990 and 1994 as lectures or journal articles. Richard seeks to account for the ruptures, discontinuities, and fragmentation wrought on cultural expression during the dictatorship, what she calls semiotically "the catastrophe of meaning" (5). She traces the aesthetic movements, choices, and crises of obliterated memory and disillusions of identity. She celebrates, as well as interrogates, the fusion of art and politics and of forms and ideologies in Chile's literary and artistic production. The famous CADA movement (the Art Actions Collective) takes center stage in her discussion. Richard elaborates on the group's philosophy and enumerates its best-known actions: art that takes to the streets (pamphleteering about hunger), that spreads across the skies (poet Raul Zurita's sky writing), that invades public space and appropriates strategies from transportation, mass media, and the military. CADA's activity fuels Richard's analysis that, as the translators mention in their introduction, is "[s]ituated at the intersections of literary criticism, art history, aesthetics, philosophy, and feminist theory" (xv). Her analysis of the left in Latin America is particularly pointed, although likely to be obtuse to readers grasping this kind of interpretation about Chile for the first time (chapters 3 and 4). The difficult yet necessary coordination, according to Richard, among the social sciences, the humanities, and the arts comes from the pressures of years under repression, the devastation on memory, and the desperate effort to forge new collective aesthetic and intellectual discourses. The book closes with the transcription of a fascinating conversation among Richard, German Bravo (sociologist), Martin Hopenhayn (philosopher), and Adriana Valdes (literature and art critic). The four elaborate on many of the topics of Richard's work in the book, such as the role of cultural criticism, postmodernity, and writing and art after the dictatorship in Chile. The conversation is a capstone for the book, highlighting interdisciplinary collaboration and exposing readers to important critics from Chile. The chapter would have benefited from some prefacing remarks to introduce these important critics and situate the dialogue (date and place, for example), or even a brief note included in the author's or translators' introductions at the beginning of the book.

Masculine/Feminine: Practices of Difference(s) traces the dynamics of gendered aesthetics in Chile, again within the context of repression and the transition to democracy. The first chapter stakes out Richard's theoretical ground, defining and defending cultural studies and then engaging the dialogues among literary studies, the social sciences, and leftist politics. Generally a deconstructionist operation throughout, her conclusions are somewhat obvious and outdated. She makes the point, for example, that Latin American women are doubly marginalized through gender and colonialism, revelations that feminist postcolonialists such as Gayatri Spivak and Trinh Minh-ha brought out many years ago. The following chapters, however, plunge into Chile's recent cultural production and interpret the politics of gender with concision and originality. Chapter two discusses women's writing in Chile, making the urgent distinction between "writing by women" and systematic, patriarchal, gendered discursive practices. The essay provides context, framing the analysis with examples of conferences and publications that highlight how experimental writing disarticulates and rearticulates patriarchal discourse and how the canon has shifted to include new voices and strategies. Chapter three covers the artistic scene, where Richard is perhaps most stimulating. Unfortunately the analysis of work by Catalina Parra, Lotty Rosenfeld, and Virginia Errazuriz is not accompanied with visual images. Chapter four examines transvestite art and performance, discovering there the "double ordering of masculinity and femininity" (43) in work by Carlos Leppe, Juan Davila, Pedro Lemebel, and Paz Errazuriz. In this chapter the translators' comments on terminology help clarify the problematics of terms such as "gay" and "queer," situating them in their regional, national, and international contexts. The last chapter returns to theory to take on "the crisis of totalizing metanarratives" (60) in feminist thought. Reading like another introduction, the essay acknowledges the variety of feminisms and the differing and often conflicting positions among them, particularly in Latin America where Richard underscores the need to redefine and disassociate from European and Anglo-American notions of modernity.

The translators have done an eloquent job of rendering Richard's prose in English, keeping quite loyal to the original. Given her dense style known to be rather burdened with the catch-phrases of cultural studies' jargon, this reader often wished the translators had gone a bit further in unburdening it in English. However, the translators should not be criticized for their loyalty. Occasionally a false cognate slips into the essays (exhibits are not "realized" (31) but shown, held, or mounted, for example), and definite articles sometimes jar the flow of a sentence ("the crisis," "the discard"). Overall, the books read smoothly and the translators have minimized the need for all but a few terms parenthetically included in the original Spanish. One of the challenges of translating work such as Richard's that is so timely, so rooted in a particular spatial and political context, becomes how to clarify or universalize the historical markers in the original. The translators faced this challenge with deliberate strategies that maintain the immediacy of the writing. At times this adds to the essays' contestatory force, but other times it lends a certain anachronistic quality to the translation. The translators provide a brief introduction to the author and the historical period in both books, an essential component for an unfamiliar reader; nevertheless, given the complexity of the Chilean context over the last thirty years, Richard's essays presuppose a more thorough background, and it is doubtful that readers totally new to Chilean cultural studies will glean a complete understanding of certain chapters.

The same year that Duke published these translations, University of Minnesota Press published Richard's Cultural Residues: Chile in Transition. Together with these two volumes, readers in English have access to an important corpus by this original thinker, theorist, and critic on Latin America. As both an observer and participant in the arts activism scene in Chile over the course of its difficult and violent history and more recent transition to democracy, Richard reconsiders discourses from Anglo-European thinkers, such as deconstruction and feminist analysis, to bring them to bear on Chilean politics, cultural resistance, literary and artistic production. Readers will reposition their own perspectives on debates that have been somewhat ignored in the U.S. academy in recent years and will likely refine their own theoretical apparatuses, thanks to Richard's challenging essays. This new dialogue with an English-speaking public furthers Richard's interdisciplinary aims in bridging disciplines and spheres of analysis (arts, politics, literature, philosophy) beyond Latin America.


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Author:Schwartz, Marcy
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2005
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