After a stimulating panel at SLAS 2015, held at the University of Aberdeen last week, we’re posting the final line-up of Spectres of Nationalism. The topics covered were broad, ranging from architecture, through education in indigenous areas, to childhood and the legacy of Simón Bolívar but it was gratifying that even without prior discussion about our papers, they spoke to each other in really interesting ways, not least through a common interest in liminality as a productive site for thinking beyond polarization.
Thanks to everyone who took part!
SLAS Annual Conference 2015
Panel: Spectres of Nationalism in the Twenty-First Century? Cultural Autonomy in Venezuela
Convenors: Venezuela Research Network – Lisa Blackmore (Universität Zürich), Rebecca Jarman (University of Cambridge) and Penélope Plaza (City University London)
The spatialization of the power of oil: PDVSA as place entrepreneur in the regeneration of Sabana Grande Boulevard.
In the year 2007, as part of the celebration of La semana de Caracas, PDVSA La Estancia (the social and cultural arm of PDVSA, the Venezuelan state-owned oil and natural gas Company) launched in partnership with the Libertador Municipality a National Competition of Ideas to gather architecture and urban design proposals for the integral rehabilitation of the Sabana Grande Boulevard and surrounding areas, that at the time were in serious disrepair and neglect. PDVSA La Estancia took control of the large scale infrastructure investment to transform Sabana Grande Boulevard’s urban landscape space in which imaginaries of oil are embedded throughout the space by way of the oil company’s branding, visual campaigns, urban furniture and choice of public art.
Drawing on Lefebvre and David Harvey, and following Saskia Sassen’s assertion that the city spaces is the ideal site for the spatialization of power projects, this paper will explore the construction and mobilization of culture in public space through the works of urban regeneration promoted and executed by PDVSA La Estancia, in which oil is integrated the repertoire of cultural symbols for the Bolivarian petro-state, as a symptom of the increasing power of PDVSA as a “parallel state”.
Phantom pavilions: El Helicoide and La Torre de David as contested microcosms of the nation-state.
In the post-independence quest for national consolidation in Latin America the exhibition and the pavilion emerged as two fundamental vehicles to mobilize the nation-state as an visual and spatial iconography that would harness an ‘imagined community’ (Benedict Anderson) in a common place. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as Beatriz González-Stephan and Orlando Marín have shown, regimes in Venezuela recurrently invested in creating microcosmic displays at home and abroad that configured the nation according to the telos of unity and development. This history reveals the persistence of a discourse of nationhood founded on the credence that identity can be effectively encapsulated in architectural forms that create the ‘miniature worlds’ Tony Bennett identified in public displays at museums, fairs and exhibitions.
Drawing on this background, this paper contends that the ideal of the national pavilion haunts the Venezuelan capital’s contemporary cityscape. To this end, I analyse El Helicoide, a modernist mall and exhibition centre from the 1950s, and La Torre de David, the 1990s banking centre turned vertical barrio now undergoing eviction, in order to trace their polysemous status as prospective visions, liminal sites, and contemporary icons whose contested interpretations make the case for both national ruination and renewal. By exposing the constellatory figurations of these buildings amid the shifting tides of political, social, and economic change, I argue that their indeterminacy attests to the spectre of the national pavilion whose haunting presence in truncated structures reveals the enduring valence of the pursuit of a definitive (architectural) form for the nation-state.
Defining the limits of the nation: Indigenous organisations and the Bolivarian revolution.
This paper, will explore the Bolivarian revolution as a pervasive discourse about the Venezuelan nation, which sets the limits of the state and thereby defines who can belong to it. In a public act in Amazonas, in 2013, Venezuelan Vice-president, Jorge Arreaza, stated “If an indigenous group does not have the clarity to support the Bolivarian Revolution that makes them practically traitors to their own people”. This statement forms part of a wider political discourse, within which indigenous groups are compelled to demonstrate their support to the current government in order to claim legitimacy. The 1999 Bolivarian constitution (CRBV) was the first to provide local indigenous groups with a host of rights, which included, among others, the right to free association. However, in the last few years, indigenous groups have been encouraged to organise themselves under the figures of the communal councils and the communes, both created by the national government, in order to claim their rights.
In contemporary Venezuela, therefore, the Bolivarian revolution represents the only legitimate space within which indigeneity is allowed to exist. Organisations that position themselves outside the revolution’s rhetoric, thus place themselves outside the defined limits of the state and are consequently considered to be foreign. The relationship between Venezuelan indigenous groups and the nation-state has been, historically, one of constant expansion in which indigenous groups defined the limits of the state. This paper will explore how adscription to the revolution’s ideals represents, for Venezuelan indigenous groups, an invitation to being assimilated into the nation.
Political Landslides in Venezuela? Ideology, Childhood and Natural Disaster in Una tarde con campanas (2004) and El chico que miente (2011).
The 1999 landslides in the coastal region of Venezuela left thousands dead, and many more unaccounted for. The ‘Vargas Tragedy’ – as it has come to be known – occurred in the same year as the presidential inauguration of Hugo Chávez, whose ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ marked the rise of the ‘marea rosada’. Mark Anderson (2011) has identified the ways in which natural disasters are endowed with meaning, conceived as messages from God, from nature, or serve ideologically as ‘empty signifiers’. Under Chávez’s new governance, the landslides created an opportunity to rebuild the coastline in the image of the Revolution that would overcome the forces of nature.
This paper argues that Juan Carlos Méndez Guédez’s Una tarde con campanas and Marité Ugás’s El chico que miente foreground the child as a survivor of the tragedy to upset the notion of sovereignty fixed to recuperation from the disaster. For Karen Lury (2010), the figure of the child exists prior to adult subjectivity while, equally, shoring up the agency of the non-human. The boy protagonists of Una tarde con campanas and El chico que miente question their role as ‘infantile citizens’, while calling for thought beyond the symbolisms and spectacles of the nation. Locating the child between nature and socialization, Méndez Guédez and Ugás shore up urgent questions of autonomy and agency in the context of ‘Twenty-First Century Socialism’.
When the Boat Comes In: Myth, Reification, and the Changing Face of Simón Bolívar in Venezuelan Politics and Culture.
The Venezuelan poet and essayist Eugenio Montejo was, throughout his work, concerned with locating and poeticising the central symbols of Venezuelan identity and being. It is no surprise, then, that Simón Bolívar appears as the subject of one of his longest poems, ‘Nostalgia de Bolívar’. The poem, from 1976, does what many good poems do: it resonates far beyond its literary borders. Using this poem as its starting point, this paper examines to what extent the Bolívar that is traced and metaphorised within its lines serves as a basis for understanding how the figure has been used and appropriated by politicians down the ages in Venezuela. Specifically, I argue that the appeal to Bolívar is dependent on the sense that any immanent meaning or image granted to figure is contingent, mutable, and insufficient. Turning to the case of Hugo Chávez, I contend that Chávez’s appropriation of Bolívar’s name, words, corporeal remains, and military relics has served to tie down ‘Bolívar‘, anchoring the figure in a contemporary politics and leader and using it to identify a particular subset of the Venezuelan people, rather than unifying them all. One result of this move has been that the solemnity of ‘Nostalgia de Bolívar’ has given way to the satiric comedy of more recent cultural engagements by Emilio Lovera, Er conde del Guacharo, and others, all of which rely on the acceptance of the ‘oficialista’ appropriation of Bolívar. I end by asking whether this current incarnation will prove to be the end of the Venezuelan (rather than Bolivarian) cult and myth of Bolívar.