Circuits of Culture: Media, Politics, and Indigenous Identity in the Andes External linkalt


Jeff Himpele

Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Reviewed by:

Carlos D. Torres, Doctoral Candidate, Anthropology, University of Colorado – Boulder

Caroline S. Conzelman, PhD, Anthropology, University of Denver


One of the strengths of cultural anthropologists (as opposed to political scientists or mass media researchers) conducting research in the emerging field of media anthropology is that through their deep relationship with a particular place, particular people, and particular media, they are able to more holistically document the visible and audible evidence of cultural production in all of its situated complexity. Jeff Himpele, in Circuits of Culture: Media, Politics, and Indigenous Identity in the Andes, External linkaltin this way creates a comprehensive media ethnography of La Paz, Bolivia, but he also goes beyond geographic constraints to look at the history of media circulation and distribution in the country as its own unique narrative and constitutive cultural process. Himpele performs an ethnographic service to his readers by offering a focused perspective of an emerging indigenous public media sphere, with increasing political consequence, that largely has been unobserved, unnoticed, unanalyzed, unarticulated, and thus unknown. At base this is a superb example of an intimately engaged, meticulously researched longitudinal ethnography.

Himpele introduces his argument with the juxtaposition—captured in a photo—of a cinema marquee advertising El Rey Leo (The Lion King) movie along the main boulevard of La Paz while a procession of costumed dancers performing the traditional Aymara Diablada (Devil) dance passes a full crowd in the foreground. Modern with ancient, elite with indigenous, this scene represents some of the circuits of popular culture that Himpele wishes to explain, evaluate, and even diagram (inspired by de Certeau, 2008:49). As with another example of Aymara and Quechua neighbors watching karate flicks in tiny theaters along the city canyon walls, “the boundary between Indians and non-Indians” is “not easily drawn” (2008:xix). While he acknowledges that folkloric parades and other indigenous festivals can be considered part of Bolivia’s “broad and diverse cultural media,” he directs his analysis on “key sites in the representational media of film, television, and video as [mobile] indexes of wider historical practices that have shaped the present” (2008:xvii). After centuries of the marginalization and oppression of Andean peoples, this “present,” Himpele argues, is witnessing the indigenization of Bolivia’s media as well as its urban publics, which he suggests is also helping to indigenize the country’s politics.

Thus does the author charge himself before embarking along a somewhat tortuous course in pursuit of theoretical enlightenment. According to Himpele, the assumed “bifurcation” of media as a practice of production and media as consumption is not a simple distinction. Himpele builds upon Charles Acland’s premise that there is a “narrative” in the “path” of the “film commodity as it moves from conception to consumption” (2008:22). Great segments of the book are devoted to showing how film distribution “involves reflexive, performative, and discursive practices” (2008:23) that create culture by creating “publics” (those who consume the product and thus incorporate it into their personal or collective experience) and “narrative operations” that convert “mobile spaces into fixed places of spectatorship” (spaces where those publics can be temporarily observed and defined) (2008:22).

Himpele “excavates” the Bolivian cinema past by researching the archives of Bolivian filmmakers who appropriated indigeneity as a strategic locus for advancing and interjecting revolutionary aesthetics and political rhetoric into the production and visualization of documentary and feature films. Himpele then documents the attempts of Bolivian filmmakers to create works of “mestizo national projects” (2008:118-28)—during a period of fervent nationalism—followed by the 1960s and 70s films of Ivan Sanjinés who was to obliterate the ideological construct of this false nationalism by revealing “the cultural heterogeneity and [social] realities hidden beneath” conceptions of Bolivian cultural uniformity (2008:131). With the sudden diffusion of television to urban areas in the 1980s following a return to democratic governance and expanding markets, Himpele shifts his analysis to this new (for Bolivia) form of popular media.

From a teaching standpoint, Himpele’s in-depth examination of a 1980s and 90s television program in La Paz called The Open Tribunal of the People is a well articulated case study of how to analyze a television show and its place in the broader cultural matrix of its place and time. The Tribunal was an immensely popular testimonial show in which urban indigenous women and men described the difficulties they faced in their family lives or communities and then were provided with verbal, legal and financial support by the host, Carlos Palenque, and the show’s Social Wing. This unique format condensed “the potent scale of mass media into the intimacy of face-to-face contact.” The show created social alliances and an atmosphere of collusion between the viewers, the participants and the host, and also claimed to challenge the privileged position of the traditional elites in Bolivia. In Himpele’s analysis, the show was successful—and became highly politically influential—because it linked the social therapeutics of opening up a “discursive space” for the airing of societal ills with the “public visibility of immediate and direct social justice” for marginalized sectors of Bolivian society (2008:141-42). Because Palenque used this success to form a populist political party and came in second or third in the 1989 and 1993 presidential elections, Himpele argues that Palenque not only expanded the potential of the emerging medium of television but “objectified the protagonism of the participants and popularized indigenous symbolism to authenticate a scenario of popular self-representation in the public sphere” (2008:143).

Himpele’s book can be read in two ways: one from the perspective of someone specifically interested in the socio-political dynamics of Bolivia and the role that film and media have played in the shift toward indigenous control of its own representation, and the other from the perspective of someone specifically interested in film and media studies and the evolution of the theories of representation in any context. Circuits of Culture: Media, Politics, and Indigenous Identity in the Andes External linkaltfulfills both perspectives, though the first type of reader will get seriously bogged down with the unfamiliar intricacies of media theory, while the second type of reader may be derailed by all of the detail related to the culture and politics of this little-known South American nation. In other words, each reader will be, by turns, enchanted and frustrated by this book, though for opposite reasons. To his admirable credit, Himpele does weave these two perspectives together with skill and style, and for those lucky few who happen to hold interests in both camps, this book will be rich and enlightening. For the others, you might need to skip over some sections just to get through this dense treatise.

One problem with this book is that after using as the opening scene Evo Morales’s inauguration at Tiwanaku as Bolivia’s first indigenous president, Himpele never returns to this event in his analysis of Bolivia’s increasing indigeneity. Leaving this event hanging makes it seem tacked on just to make the book appear more current and political, a misleading ploy since the book is far more theoretical and does not explain the rise of Bolivia’s indigenous social movements nor of Evo Morales to the presidency. In this regard the book stops short of its potential and leaves one kind of reader—those interested in Bolivian history and politics—wanting.

Another narrative element underdeveloped in the book, after a cursory and abrupt introduction, was the importance of the Aymara street festivals and folkloric parades as counterparts to indigenous identity formation and representation through television and film media. Omitted completely are the ubiquitous protest marches, road blockades and worker strikes, central features of indigenous popular political participation in the “alternative” public sphere that have helped give rise to indigenous representation in local and national government. The reason these public tactics are such a mainstay of Bolivian politics is due to the enduring strength of the sindicatos, primarily agrarian and mining labor unions created after the 1952 Revolution and maintained through the era of military dictatorships, (1964-1982) a crucial historical phase that Himpele omits from his discourse in Chapter 2. Had Himpele invested more time explaining the roots of the historic event at Tiwanaku portrayed in the opening lines of the book, the contested “alternative” public sphere of the Bolivian street—where folkloric events and festivals take place as well as protests—would have been exposed as one of Bolivia’s most important circuits of culture. The suggestion that Morales’s inauguration at Tiwanaku was a “performance of indigeneity” (2008:xiv) also would have been understood as a more emotional phenomenon.

In a book purporting to concern itself with “indigenous identity,” Himpele sublimates this topic into a more limited framework of “indigeneity” with its connotation of indigenous identity as a strategic resource with political ends, rather than considering indigenous identity more comprehensively, and emically, to include social recomposition and the reconnection to and honoring of deep cultural traditions. Himpele’s last chapter (which would have worked better as a stand-alone chapter than as a conclusion) shows how indigeneity now is not just embodied in folklore but also “flows” into popular culture and media—circulating both nationally and internationally. This argument comes closer to fulfilling the promise of his title.

Ultimately, Himpele’s deft analysis of Bolivian films and filmmakers makes for a convincing and often enjoyable read with its premise that the power of indigenous self-representation lies not just in the production of media, but also in indigenous control of media distribution as their own “circulation of Indianness” (2008:212).

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