The work of Ecuadorian cultural critic Bolívar Echeverría has until now been off the radar for non-Spanish readers. Modernity and “Whiteness”, first published in 2010, has now been translated into English and it serves to introduce this Latin American intellectual and the novelty of his thought for a new audience.
Echeverría’s time in West Germany in the 1960s thrust him into the radical politics of that era and familiarised him with the Frankfurt School of cultural criticism and the existentialism of Sartre.
He settled in Mexico in 1970 and remained there, discussing, teaching and writing about Marxism until his death in 2010.
The distinctive quality of his thought is best appreciated in the ‘Meditations on the Baroque’ chapter of Modernity and “Whiteness”.
The trigger for his reading of Latin American Baroque art is the observation of Adorno’s that the baroque ceases to decorate anything: “[it] is, on the contrary, nothing but decoration.”
Building on this, Echeverría sees its disproportionate theatricality as parallel to the way Cervantes employs Don Quixote to question the legitimacy of the real world by showing it to be also staged and therefore ‘ultimately contingent and arbitrary’. In the Americas, the baroque is positioned as a cultural response by the dispossessed classes of mestizo cities to the weakening nature of Spanish rule towards the end of the 16th century.
The surviving indigenous population take it upon themselves to re-represent European civilizational forms in a way that ceases to be imitation and become instead a new reality.
They sacrifice their own ancient culture, internalising capitalist modernity, for a dream world that takes on a life of its own:
…a representation within which the “Creole Spaniards” were born, with all the “splendors and miseries” of the colonial world, which was manifested so richly, acutely, and exquisitely in its art and literature, and within which we, the Latin Americans of today, after too many centuries, still find ourselves.
There is a broader historical frame for, while a realist ethos, enacted in forms of everyday practice, is a characteristic of Protestant culture, a baroque one reflects the predominance of Catholic culture.
In Mexico, a peculiar form of idolatry animates its Catholicism – Echeverría turns his attention on the Virgin of Guadalupe – where the dogma of the Holy Trinity is subverted by a ‘multipolar pantheon’ that elevates Mary to a godly figure.
The pre-conquest pilgrimage to the exact location of the Marian apparition is part of the process that transforms the veneration of the Atzec mother goddess Tonantzin with the Virgin Mary.
The wider conceptual context for Echeverría’s reflections on the baroque is his notion of ‘whiteness’ as the sense of self-identity, in countries with non-white populations, most conducive to capitalist production. “Whiteness” becomes not a racial category but a mentality that internalises capitalist values, reaching an apotheosis – and a caricature – in Michael Jackson’s tampering with his facial ethnic features.
Modernity and “Whiteness”, by Bolívar Echeverría, is published by Polity Press