A Review of Tramas del mercado: imaginación económica, cultura pública y literatura en el Chile de fines del siglo veinte

 Exploring the Free Market Through Narrative

by | Sep 19, 2008

Tramas del mercado: imaginación económica, cultura pública y literatura en el Chile de fines del siglo veinte By Luis E. Cárcamo-Huechante (Editorial Cuarto Propio, Santiago, Chile, 2007, 271 pages)

​Luis Cárcamo-Huechante’s new book provides us with a convincing counter-narrative, at once nuanced and succinct, to three mainstream narratives of the neoliberal free market in Chile: those of monetarist economics, promotional politics, and literary bestsellers. It covers the Pinochet dictatorship (1973-90) and the transition to democracy from its official inauguration in 1988, with the victory of the Yes vote for a return in two years’ time to civilian government, up to the mid-1990s, and concludes with a brief jump forward to 2001-03. It accounts for more than twenty years of national history and multiple discursive practices (economic, political, and literary) to argue the thesis that neoliberalism is a globalizing economic regime that by the end of the twentieth century succeeded in displacing the dominant discourse of citizenship that had characterized the Chilean variant of the welfare state from the 1930s to the 70s, replacing it with a new hegemonic discourse: the discourse of the market. In Chile, as elsewhere, the latest historical iteration of the free market has been implemented and experienced not only in the material realm but imaginatively, consciously, through the evermore rapid and far-reaching circulation of money (material and virtual), consumer goods, images, brands, media technologies, simulacra, and words.

The book’s Introduction is an expertly wrought reader’s guide to Cárcamo-Huechante’s central thesis and how this will be argued in the following three monographic chapters. In it, the author, an Associate Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures at Harvard, explains much of the terminology needed to navigate the book and starts inserting the consistently well chosen historical and sociological information that will provide contextualization throughout and that helps make this interdisciplinary project so illuminating and rich. Each of the three chapters deals with a different disciplinary discourse through the example of one or more emblematic texts. By focusing on specific moments, together they recreate the chronological line from 1973 to the mid-1990s as traced in the Introduction.

Chapter 1 rereads the lecture delivered in Santiago on March 26, 1975, by North American economist Milton Friedman. By teasing out the cultural values and symbols embedded in this lecture, Cárcamo-Huechante uncovers what he claims is the foundational text that will legitimate the eventual transformation of Friedman’s recommended structural adjustment of the Chilean economy, inaugurated by the Junta’s economists one month later, into a much broader cultural adjustment of society as a whole. Here Cárcamo detects the seeds for the redefinition of the role of knowledge and the university and the privileging of the technocrat, or expert, as the new social ideal of the intellectual that, he argues, will characterize the Chilean cultural landscape by the end of the century. Chapter 1 also provides a noteworthy discussion of how, in the seventies, the Junta and its technocrats exploited recent memories of the Allende years in their practice of resignifying public spaces. Friedman was invited to deliver his lecture at the former United Workers’ Center, renamed by the Junta in honor of the early 19th-century authoritarian statesman Diego Portales and designated as the new seat of government after the bombing of La Moneda in September of 1973. Friedman’s lecture was published by the National Technical University, from 1969 to 1973 a leader in delivering university outreach services to popular sectors across the country.

Chapter 2 focuses on the 1987 book Chile: revolución silenciosa, directed at an abstractly defined voting public to promote the No vote in the upcoming election of ’88. Cárcamo calls it “a populist text of the [Chilean] New Right” (112), written by Joaquín Lavín, destined to become the political leader of his ideological cohort after the No vote’s defeat and the beginning of the transition to democracy. Cárcamo-Huechante analyzes this short and simply written book as a “euphoric narrative” touting the many successes of the free market system introduced in the previous decade. He reads it as a marketing speech act: a brand naming of the nation and its redefinition as market in the rhetoric of the so-called “Chilean miracle.”

Chapter 3 emphasizes the commonalities among the first three books of fiction published by the prolific best-selling author Alberto Fuguet. Cárcamo-Huechante narrates how from the end of the 1980s, Chile’s cultural space is invaded by the marketing phenomenon of the national best-seller, which not only includes novels written by Chileans for mass consumption, but also rankings, television spots for literary stars, etc. From the roster of these best-selling authors Cárcamo-Huechante chooses Fuguet, because unlike the production of the others, whose books merely circulate and succeed in this new literary market, his are the only ones that also incorporate the market’s language and register the habits and tics of citizens retooled as consumers, thus turning the market’s circulatory speed and its promotional noise into their literary aesthetic. Cárcamo-Huechante is critical of Fuguet’s short-story collection Sobredosis (1990) and his first two novels, Mala onda (1991) and Por favor, rebobinar (published in two versions, one in 1994, the second in 1998). He ultimately judges their linguistic texture and thematic development to be superficial, their marginalization of the acknowledged political context in which the narratives take place, depoliticizing, and the sexual politics of the two novels, at least, conservative. He is never moralistic, however; his object is to characterize a particular literary phenomenon. As always, he proceeds with a keen eye to historical and sociological detail. I am personally grateful for his thumbnail histories of Chilean malls and megastores and the recent dramatic shift in their publishing industry, from national companies to dominance by multinational, though predominantly Spanish, conglomerates.

In conclusion, while this review has cited only those texts that receive top billing in Cárcamo-Huechante’s richly packed and ambitious book, Tramas del mercado includes useful discussions of a number of important Chilean texts, especially literary ones, and even, in its brief Conclusion, of two recent and much publicized events in the visual sphere. In addition, along the way, its author thoughtfully engages well-known cultural critics who have developed analytical perspectives similar to his own and to whom he is indebted. His characterization of these critical positions constitutes a good review for those readers already familiar with them and a reliable introduction for those who are not. This makes Tramas del mercado a particularly useful book for the classroom, either in toto or in parts.

Fall 2008Volume VIII, Number 1
Elizabeth Garrels is a Professor of Spanish & Latin American Studies, in Foreign Languages & Literatures at MIT. Her latest book, a critical edition of Venezuelan Teresa de la Parra’s 1924 feminist novel Ifigenia, was just published by Stockcero. See http://www.stockcero.com.

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