At the MLA: Underdevelopment at home and abroad

If you’re attending this year’s MLA conference in Philadelphia, please stop by this panel, featuring Molly Geidel, Patricia Stuelke, George Cicciarello-Maher, and ME. It promises to be great. Abstracts below.

Underdevelopment at Home and Abroad: Aesthetics of Modernization in the Americas  10:15–11:30 a.m., 102A, Pennsylvania Convention Center

One of the most rigid divisions of inter-American cultural geography is that between the so-called “developed” and “underdeveloped” countries in the hemisphere. The language of “development” remains a popular technical and vernacular way of conceptualizing the geography of the American hemisphere. Nevertheless, it has received less critical scrutiny from cultural studies scholars than other related transnational concepts and spaces like the border, the hemisphere, and the plantation. This panel presents work by junior scholars conceptualizing “development” as a hemispheric political practice, ideology, and aesthetic. In line with the presidential theme of “boundary conditions,” these three papers take on one of the most durable political and cultural boundaries of the American hemisphere, as well as the disciplinary borders that have mostly restricted considerations of “development” to the empirical social sciences.

From its origins in the lexicon of post-war British colonial administration to its heyday as a term of Cold War liberalism, “underdevelopment” has been applied nearly uniformly to the global South. For canonical postwar theorists like Walter Rostow, underdevelopment was the result of cultural deficits in the third world; the term’s very syntax spatializes the colonial temporality of backwardness. Postcolonial modernization projects that disseminated the logic of “underdevelopment” were both economic and cultural, characterized by notions of empirical precision and technical agnosticism as well as a dichotomous biopolitical vision of productive v. unproductive life. This panel shifts the geographical focus on underdevelopment from the “third world” to the United States. What kind of subject positions and aesthetic forms has underdevelopment produced in the United States—and not just abroad? How does the cultural policy of development, in institutions like UNESCO and the Fulbright programs, help shape myths of U.S. affluence and Latin American poverty?

Molly Geidel’s paper, “Learning to See Underdevelopment: American Documentary Aesthetics from the Popular Front to the Cold War” traces the transformation of US-produced documentary film from the ambivalent framing of capitalist modernization in New Deal documentary to the more melodramatic, Manichean aesthetic of the early Cold War. Geidel argues that Cold War documentary asserted a sharp contrast between living productively for the future and “living out your days” or “starving slowly” as a member of a stagnant, traditional population.

Patricia R. Stuelke’s presentation, “Dollar Mambo and the Failed Erotics of Development,” explores similar questions of melodrama, nationality, and political expediency in a more contemporary context, in which the project of  “development” seems to have failed. Her paper explores the gender politics of development discourse through a reading paper of Paul Leduc’s 1993 film Dollar Mambo, about the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama. Stuelke argues that the film’s depiction of the body of Manuel Noriega mobilizes a contradictory affective response in its “first-world” viewer: on the one hand, the film activates the frustrated longing for the fraternity that development discourse had promised, as well as the sad and angry realization that the fantasy was no longer possible.

Building on Stuelke’s treatment of the erotics of development’s dream of international “fraternity,” John Patrick Leary’s paper, “‘It Looked Exactly like Mexico’: Latinophilia and the Grammar of Underdevelopment,” argues that mid-century Anglo-American male writers read Latin American poverty as a sign of cultural   vitality that U.S. “development” had stifled. Focusing on Jack Kerouac in Mexico and Ernest Hemingway in Cuba, Leary argues that latinophilic fiction dovetailed with the discourse of development, even as it seemed to fetishize “tradition.” Both latinophilia and development, Leary suggests, share a similar tautological grammar. Development, as the name for both a process and its endpoint, has a confounding, circular logic. Likewise, in critiquing the geographical divisions of the hemisphere, latinophilic fiction tautologically confirms a reader’s expectations about it. For example, when Sal, Kerouac’s protagonist in On the Road, crosses the border at Laredo, Texas, he observes: “Just across the street Mexico began…To our amazement, it looked exactly like Mexico.”



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