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Beatriz Sarlo is one of Latin America's major public intellectuals. A vibrant figure who has intervened constantly in political and cultural debates in Argentina from the years of the dictatorship through the return to democracy, Sarlo gives proof of the sustaining strength of the lettered traditions in shaping public opinion. Trained in literature and supplying a formidable voice to cultural critique and theory, Sarlo, from the decade of the 1970s, has engaged in significant editorial projects designed to stimulate debate with the public far beyond the academy. As founder and director of the respected journal, Punto de vista, inaugurated in 1978 during the most violent years of military rule and still running strong over fifty issues, Sarlo has sustained an active conversation about politics and culture, ideology and esthetics with principal thinkers from Argentina and those drawn from and international forum. If, during the years of military rule, she cautiously examined the limits of authoritarianism and the possibility of organizing cultural expression under weight of state censorship, with the return of democracy, she used the venue of Punto de vista to explore the boundaries of liberal thought and the dilemmas of political transition. Central to these debates has been the role of culture. Her writings in Punto de vista and the hypotheses of her many books have thus taken into account the workings of memory and oblivion, the restructuring of public sphere dialog; the power of popular subjects, the role of intellectuals, and the potential of an avant-garde; the effects of the mass media, the force of the visual image, and the strategies for mapping the neoliberal city in this postmodern fin de siglo. In particular, Sarlo addresses the ways in which a public debate can be sustained by integrating the voices of new social actors with established institutional figures. A particularly persistent anxiety evident in all of her writing of the decade of the 1990s concerns the way in which a consortium of voices can be heard and public culture sustained.
Whether managing issues pertinent to the early twentieth century or today's contemporary scene of writing, Sarlo vigorously explores the possibilities of popular imagination and voice as they serve in structuring intellectual culture in Argentina. In La imaginación técnica (1992), for example, Sarlo focuses on the ways in which common knowledge is constructed in the decade of the 1920s and 30s. In particular, she looks to the power of technology for captivating the dreams of popular and middle class sectors. And the pull exerted by new inventions (radio, gadgetry, electricity, telephones) in shaping modern thinking. Equally important, she wants to explore the ways in which popular sectors enter the imagination of elites. Sarlo speaks extensively to the exchanges between elites and masses which were engendered in Latin America over the potential uses of an imported technology and foreign invention. This dual attraction becomes obvious in the early decades of this century, when in the first instance, technology was absorbed by the dominant classes as a tool with which to usher modernity into Latin America; in a second instance, technology also captured the imagination of the working poor, who were stimulated by its symbolic dimensions. This poor man's use of the technological imagination, the fascination for machinery and invention which makes him a bricoleur, becomes the focus of Sarlo's book. She studies the formation of common belief through theosophy, occult sciences, and mysticism to a more formal representation of knowledge found in manuals, advice columns, and secret societies. She also considers the ways in which the media shaped the dreams of the poor. To this end, newspaper accounts of robots or UFOs, the fantasies of monsters in our midst, the freak shows and Ripley's "Believe-it-or-not" in their Argentine equivalents enter as themes of reflection in her book. Sarlo tracks the subjectivity of working sectors in modern society who respond to an invitation to dream and to stake a claim on originality based on their own abilities to invent and renew. In other words, she tracks the ways in which a fantasy of technology--invention, cheap science, how-to-do-it manuals, popular mechanics, the "know how" of bricoleur--allows the poor to shape their quest for knowledge and organize their identity. Thus, if the concept of an aestheticizing avant-garde organizes intellectual sectors in the 1920s, a faith in technology simultaneously shapes the common man's quest for knowledge, and situates an alternative intellectual production outside of institutions and the congregations of high-spirited modernists. This is not then a book about avant-garde's celebration of technology (in the style of the futurist manifestos), but the ways in which the popular imagination celebrates the discovery of new inventions, mechanical wizardry, and chemical fusions, and sets about to assert a new identity, a chance for success in a modern world. Equally important, it suggests that popular sectors have a common culture expressed through their faith in touching the dreams of elites through quick success and triumph over machines. But technology, above all, joins popular sectors in special hopes for the future, with faith in the possibility of success through "technical know how" and the miracles of machines. Both produce vocational skills, know-how for survival while oral tradition conveys wisdom for practical survival in life.
The grace of Sarlo's logic is found in her flexible definition of non-institutional knowledge, which circulates freely around a network of print sources and is distributed among the urban population regardless of social status. Anyone might benefit from invention, quick cures, electricity, and magic; though distributed by elites, technology was soon absorbed by the masses; as such, it promises a democratic future, the basis for a common culture. Sarlo thus moves between the specific machinery produced by technology and appropriated by the masses, and the possibilities for speaking in a different way about communitarian connectedness. Clearly inspired by the writings of Raymond Williams and Pierre Bourdieu, Sarlo accounts for the daily life of popular subjects vis a vis different intellectual fields. She juxtaposes different forms of imagining along with the conflicts of oral and written traditions, tracking the emergence of a common wisdom, the basis of a national culture. This focus informs her work throughout the decade of the 1990s, wherein she balances the missions of intellectuals with those of the popular sectors, testing the limits of popular knowledge and the power if an avant-garde. Through her most recent book, La máquina cultural (1998), Sarlo insists the way in which a modern national culture emerges from the encounter of these conflicting desires.
© Francine Masiello, University of California, Berkeley, 1999
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|Last modified: January 3, 1999|