Thursday, July 5, 2012

George Mariscal - Brown Eyed Children of the Sun

George Mariscal’s Brown-Eyed Children of the Sun responds to critiques of the Chicano Movement (the Movimiento) as a failed, regressively nationalist social movement by reconstructing it in terms of postmodern discourse.  Using Raymond Williams’ claim that ideology and material practice/ discourse are mutually constitutive, and Foucault’s claim that “overlapping ideologies and discourses produce figures, practices, and languages functioning under a generalized rubric,” Mariscal analyzes a variety of texts, including images, poetry, speeches, student essays, newspaper articles and writings by both English- and Spanish-speaking activists to “map the complex ideological field that was the Chicano Movement of the Viet Nam war era” in terms that he hopes will help 21st century Chicano/a activists form their own context-dependent identities and social movements.  (23, 21)  Because he is interested in the relationship between discourse and ideology in the Movimiento and in constructing a Foucauldian “archaeology” rather than a chronological historical narrative, Mariscal refuses to develop a linear narrative or to reify the Chicano Movement around a single ideology, group, or even defining feature.   Instead, he analyzes primarily written and visual texts by both participants and contemporary observers  to complicate key movement concepts and symbols (or people) such as nationalism, race, Che Guevara, Cesar Chavez, Aztlan, and UCSD.  The end result of this discourse analysis is a conception of the Movimiento as a fragmented ideological fabric whose participants are themselves fragmented, multiple, and heterogeneous.   

The intentionally decentered narrative that Mariscal constructs contributes to the study of the Chicano Movement, and to social movements more generally, in several ways.  First, by insisting that the Movimiento did not subscribe to a single nationalist ideology but was instead the product of a fragmentary dialectic between regressive (static, reactionary) nationalism, cultural (coalition-building, heterogeneous) nationalism, and internationalism or Third-Worldism, he is able to address charges of sexism, racism, homophobia, and exclusionary nationalism as pieces of a larger, more complex whole rather than as defining elements of the Movement.  Second, the same postmodern lens that he brings to the Movement as a whole also allows him more leeway in interpreting Movement subjects: rather than defining Chicanos/as in terms of the Movimiento’s regressive traditionalist working class Mexican participants, he constructs the Chicano/a identity as both a raced body and as a less-concrete body defined by movement, mixture, change, and mestizaje.  This concept of participants as contingent articulations within a larger discursive structure fits in nicely with his argument that this particular movement was not a “traditional” mass movement but a shifting, changing, amorphous one, and thus that it was able to effectively leverage tactics as different as Cesar Chavez’ nonviolence, the Young Lords’ violent antiracist revolutionary stance, and Hispanic liberalism into far-reaching social changes.  Finally, his emphasis on the production of meaning through discourse, as with Che Guevara’s reproduced image or Cesar Chavez as the MLK of the Chicano/a movement, rather than through concrete acts by specific actors, allows him to construct a history of the Movimiento as a history of changing meanings and representations rather than a history of human acts.  The detachment of history from physical bodies allows him to look more closely at the development of ideologies and symbolism  and the reception of different actors.  This approach may make the Movimiento more relevant to current activists than a simple recounting of events, as these activists will be forming movements for their own times that will have little to do with the technologies and logistics and people of the 1960s.

However, despite the strengths of this approach, Brown-Eyed Children of the Sun misses the mark in some ways.  First and foremost, focusing on discourse and cultural impressions, at least the way he does it, makes for beautiful language but may be too detached from the actual movement to give readers unfamiliar with the subject matter.  Specifically, given that he draws from a wide variety of sources, including writings by well-known (to the non-Spanish-speaking world) activists such as Guevara and Chavez, Latin American activists, poets, academics, and students and gang members, his emphasis on the discursive production of meaning raises questions of access.  Who was reading these texts?  Where were these writers?  Without information on positionality of writers and accessibility of texts, it is difficult to assess how well the texts he chose actually relate to the movement he’s describing.  Further, favoring discursive sites over historical events runs the risk of derailing his recovery project, as the lack of details on specific events means that new readers won’t be able to place the texts in historical context.  In addition, while characterizing a social movement and its participants as heterogeneous and multiple is likely closer to historical fact than a “great man” narrative, this tactic also allows Mariscal to elide the critical question of boundaries.  In a movement such as the Chicano Movement, which includes an ethnic or racialized component in its many discourses, saying that both the issues covered by the movement and the identities of the people in it were based on movement and mixing rather than homogeneous nationalistic impulses, traditional values, and racial purity is important, but it does not answer basic questions like who is in the movement?  who is out?  and how is it bound together?  More importantly, where are the people, what do the activists think, and why can’t we hear anyone but the most lyrical writers?  It is difficult to conceive of a historical movement when its history is presented as discourse rather than active struggle; at times, the book reads as though Mariscal’s telling is the only discursive fabric that binds it together as a movement.

This tension between history and discourse also affects Mariscal’s analysis of the success or failure of the Movimiento.  Although he constructs the Movimiento as a fragmented, complex cultural formation, he also subjects the movement to a classical binary Marxist analysis, and these two approaches sometimes seem at odds with one another.  Why, for instance, is it alright for the Movimiento to be fragmented ideologically, and laudable for Chicano/as to form alliances with Native American and Black organizations, but troubling for Hispanic professionals to form a contingent separate from working class Chicano/as?   Finally, Mariscal’s inclusion of the academy as a site of struggle is also problematic.  His frustration at being a Chicano scholar at UCSD is obvious in several places throughout the text; at different points, he underscores that he is not getting funding to write this book, that UC Davis is not co-operating to get the Chicano/a studies program underway, and that academia does not support him and it in its ivory tower and not dealing with real community issues.  While these issues may well be real and certainly support his postmodern interest in positionality, they often come across more as personal gripes with his unique situation than issues that affect the Chicano/a Movement as a whole.  While Mariscal’s discursive approach allows for a unique analysis of the Chicano Movement, it raises almost as many questions as it answers.

Despite – and in some case, because of – these issues, Brown-Eyed Children of the Sun makes many connections to other works.  As Mariscal notes in his Introduction, his work is indebted to both Raymond Williams and Foucault, particularly in its emphasis on discourse as the site of cultural production.  His analysis of Che Guevara reads like something right out of Barthes’ Mythologies, though it is also indebted to Baudrillard’s concept of the simulacrum.  Because it emphasizes movement and mixing rather than stasis, racial purity, or any kind of narrative of authenticity, his construction of Chicano identity also has traces of the simulacrum in it.  The book’s focus on the shifting, heterogeneous ideologies and identities seems closely related to Laclau’s “articulation of differential demands” in his On Populist Reason, though Laclau’s book appeared several years after Mariscal’s was published. Brown-Eyed Children of the Sun is in good company in its use of a postmodern lens to analyze a social movement; greater emphasis on historical events and real, live actors would help present-day activists better understand the relationship between ideology, theory, and historical social change.

Mariscal, George.  Brown-Eyed Children of the Sun: Lessons from the Chicano Movement, 1965-1975University of New Mexico Press, 2005.

No comments:

Post a Comment