How do we connect with people around us? Especially those with whom we don’t agree? Like many professors of literature and culture, I live and work in a place I was unfamiliar with before my job interview. I sit in my home office in Columbia, South Carolina, in a country I still struggle to understand seven years after I immigrated. I consider how my writing, and that of my discipline at large, might connect with the people around me. Put another way, in a world thoroughly saturated with literature, culture, journalism, and “expertise,” what is the best way to intervene?
Latin America offers examples that are instructive for us in the United States today. Two recent books show the power, limitations, and risks for journalists in Latin America, while a third discusses similar themes in the US context. Pablo Calvi’s Latin American Adventures in Literary Journalism gives us a historical framework for the relationship between journalism and social and political change, and explores how, in the past, such journalists persuaded publics to change their minds. Daniel Worden’s Neoliberal Nonfictions: The Documentary Aesthetic from Joan Didion to Jay-Z studies the history and character of the “documentary film.” It proposes that the documentary-film genre, with its focus on the individual, is not a helpful tool for revealing truth but, instead, is a symptom of neoliberal economic and social policy that has been in place since the 1960s. Finally, Gabriela Polit Dueñas’s Unwanted Witnesses: Journalists and Conflict in Contemporary Latin America shows the high prices journalists pay and the deadly risks they encounter in doing their work in Latin America. Indeed, Polit Dueñas dedicates her book to all the journalists who have died in the line of duty from 1992 to 2018. The list is three pages long.
Taken together, these books show readers the possibilities and challenges in the way journalists portray reality. As such, the books force upon the reader crucial questions: How might we be as effective as the journalists Calvi discusses, whose rhetorical strategies of exaggeration and inauthenticity connected with their audiences and inspired change? How might we act in ways that evoke the journalists Polit Dueñas describes, building relationships with the people we portray? And can we do so without fixating on documenting the individual instead of the structure, which, as Worden insists, is an integral part of the neoliberal project?
It may be a challenge to keep all this in mind and avoid seeming like a cultural observer in a region that is not our own. But if we do not try, what is the point? The time is right for a renewed focus on how information is shared, what goals it should achieve, how it should be framed, and to whom it should be addressed. Fortunately, Latin America has answers to share.
Calvi shows that Latin American journalists in the 19th and early 20th centuries criticized corrupt governments and were able to persuade their audiences to agree with their ideas about liberal democracy. He reminds us that this criticism came at a personal—and sometimes financial—cost for the journalists. The first chapter of Latin American Adventures introduces us to a Chilean student, Francisco Bilbao, at his trial in 1844. Bilbao was ultimately fined for criticizing the ways that the newly independent Chilean government simply mirrored the Spanish imperial power that it had just overthrown.
The way that the press discussed the trial was more important than the trial itself, because it affected the development of journalism in the Americas throughout the 19th century. For Calvi, it “signaled the emergence of an unprecedented audience—a nascent postcolonial readership in need of its own voice.”
Calvi also looks at the well-known Argentine writer Domingo Faustino Sarmiento’s book Facundo: Civilization and Barbarism (1845), written while he was in exile in Chile. In it he criticized the Argentine dictator Juan Manuel de Rosas. Sarmiento effectively used hyperbole throughout his work, and “his audience was probably attuned to [this].” Reports such as that he learned French so well he translated 12 books in one month and 11 days were most likely not true. Yet they cemented his role as an intellectual and helped him make a case for progress, particularly in terms of public education, and advanced his own political career, which culminated when he became president of Argentina, in 1868.
Sarmiento’s story resonates strongly today. However, in his time, the audience could understand what was behind the exaggeration, and eventually voted for Sarmiento as president, because he was in favor of social progress, whereas today in the United States, people continue to support a president who deliberately manipulates the news or causes the death of tens of thousands of people because his advisers deliberately withhold their information from the public.
Calvi also examines the Cuban writer José Martí’s chronicles, which were written while he lived in the US, for an Argentine newspaper in the late 19th century. Martí, writing about common issues in Hispanic American countries, fostered a sense of unity. He employed rhetorical strategies—such as embellishing his source materials for greater effect—to make his articles more interesting for his readers and to further the social impact of his writing. For Calvi, Martí’s journalism was “key to initiating a Hispanic American understanding based on shared culture, interests and shared political goals.” Calvi suggests that because his work was so widely read, it created common goals across Spanish-speaking countries in Latin America, and effectively built this community.
Calvi acknowledges that his book contributes to the “intellectual chauvinism” within the field of journalism, as it focuses only on male writers. Recognizing this issue within his work strengthens the rest of his work. In my view, this allows his central argument to be relevant to us today—a vibrant press is one that appeals to its audience. In these examples, part of the appeal was exaggeration and embellished descriptions, which allowed for a powerful criticism of government. While this came at a significant cost to journalists, as we saw with Bilbao, it is integral to social and political change.
Where Calvi’s analysis centers on print journalism’s role in social change, Worden’s Neoliberal Nonfictions shows how a variety of cultural forms work to inculcate individualism, and how this individualism threatens society at large. His work explores various forms of cultural production, from comics to autobiography. He shows that the prevalence of the representation of the individual relates to the way that neoliberal policies such as financialization destroyed the social-safety net.
Analyzing the tendency to favor the individual, Worden writes, can help us better understand the underlying social structure; in one example he cites, documentary-style nonfiction reveals the legacy of neoliberal policy: deliberately broken infrastructure. Hip Hop Family Tree is a comic-book series that documents the history of hip-hop by moving among key figures and key sites involved in the development of this genre. This is a highly engaging way to tell a story about a type of creative production that occurs in the midst of a period of dispossession and exploitation.1 But, as Worden’s work insists, telling a story by focusing on individuals misses the broader social trend.
The time is right for a renewed focus on how information is shared, what goals it should achieve, how it should be framed, and to whom it should be addressed.
Neoliberal Nonfictions also explores ways that podcasts and photographs have represented some of the most devastating effects of neoliberalism, through its ties to law and order. Worden examines Taryn Simon’s series of photographs of wrongfully convicted people, taken at sites connected to the crimes they did not commit. He observes that they “make apparent the relation of subject to structure”; in this case, the structure that suggests that the criminal justice system brings about closure. He reminds viewers that neoliberal structures can be unmade. This discussion could have been expanded to include a deeper engagement with the question of race, especially as it relates to the feminist-identifying white women who love true crime.
Rather than focusing on the ways in which particular journalists connect with their audiences, as Calvi does, Worden lets the documentaries he examines stand on their own. They are already understood to effectively communicate with their audiences. I could not help but be moved, for example, by the work of Simon, whose photographs were an effort to expose a problem in the American criminal justice system. And yet her images individualize a problem—in line with what Worden observes about documentary nonfiction—and connect on an emotional level with anyone who views them. This type of work also raises certain ethical questions—could the wrongfully convicted people exercise meaningful consent to be photographed? Did they fully understand the nature of Simon’s exhibitions? There are other questions for the photographer herself. Did this engagement with extremely traumatic periods in her subjects’ lives affect her in any way?
As Polit Dueñas states in Unwanted Witnesses, journalism is “the main (if not the only) channel through which we learn about [a] region’s most pressing problems, and it is through journalistic works that we are politically challenged, intellectually engaged, and affectively moved.” Polit Dueñas considers the crónicas, a genre similar to literary journalism, long-form journalism, or creative nonfiction, that documented social suffering in the late 20th and early 21st centuries in Latin America. She does so in order to explore the ethical questions that arise as the journalists engage with these topics and their subjects, as well as the effects this process has on the journalists.
This type of writing—like the works that Calvi and Worden analyze—is not entirely objective. Where Calvi shows that rhetorical strategies such as hyperbole allowed a journalist to appeal to the public, Polit Dueñas demonstrates that truth telling can mean adopting a literary style or inserting oneself into a journalistic narrative.
Polit Dueñas describes the work of Colombian journalist and professor Patricia Nieto, who has reported on violence in her country from the 1990s to the present. She shows us how Nieto writes about violence in a way that is aesthetically pleasing. Nieto refers to works of literary fiction, such as the famous Mexican novel Pedro Páramo, and adopts the religious language of her subjects to create what Polit Dueñas calls an almost mythic reality. I think that what Polit Dueñas describes as poetic prose makes reading Nieto’s portrayals of violence bearable. Hopefully it makes us do what Nieto does through her workshops with people who have experienced violence—act and reclaim our rights as citizens.
Unwanted Witnesses also delves into the effects that reporting on traumatic events has on the journalists. Polit Dueñas recounts the Mexican journalist Marcela Turati’s visit to the University of Texas at Austin, where Polit Dueñas is a professor, to talk about her book Fuego cruzado, which deals with the violence stemming from the so-called War on Drugs. Turati, writes Polit Dueñas, “was shaking throughout and told the audience that every time she lectured on Fuego cruzado, she felt the need to apologize for crying in public.”
Telling and retelling these stories was evidently traumatic—and yet, as Polit Dueñas observes, it can also have a therapeutic effect, a cathartic quality. In other cases, silence, or not reporting all the details, is a way to honor the people most adversely affected by violence. In still other cases, these events pose too great a danger for the journalist to write about.
This danger, the incredibly high level of violence in Latin America targeting truth tellers such as journalists, has many sources. One of the most significant is the fact that the US exports billions of dollars’ worth of arms each year to Latin America, in the name of hemispheric security; and then, through foreign-aid agreements, the countries receiving this aid accordingly expand their efforts in policing and incarceration. This question of “security” is intimately related to questions of law and order, which are present in Calvi’s and Worden’s works, as well as in Polit Dueñas’s. It leads to policies that allocate no money for anything but police, prisons, and other direct forms of state control.
In the face of this state control in the 21st century, journalists continue to strive to tell the truth and encourage change, as they did in earlier periods. Calvi, for instance, briefly discusses the testimonial literature written at great personal cost by journalists such as Rodolfo Walsh in Cuba. Calvi also shows that the press’s discussion of Bilbao’s trial helped establish freedom of the press in Chile. And Calvi and Polit Dueñas mention cases where journalists and the people they portray—perhaps buoyed by outside interest in their situations—have engaged in the legal process in order to remedy social and political problems. Polit Dueñas, for example, examines María Eugenia Ludueña’s reporting on the lawsuits filed in 2015 and 2016 against the Argentine military dictatorship, which had committed crimes against humanity several decades earlier. Polit Dueñas notes that Ludueña explicitly positions herself within her crónicas and even invites her readers to join her at the trial, and in so doing has inspired change.
This article was commissioned by Bécquer Seguín.
- In some cases, as when he turns to Hans Haacke’s photographs of buildings that belong to Shapolsky’s holdings on the Lower East Side of New York City, Worden offers “an account of the tensions and gaps between subjectivity and structure.” Worden also shows how documentary relates to and influences the publishing industry in this time period. He describes a happenstance encounter between Kathleen Norris, a Christian poet and essayist, and Jay-Z. Norris found a copy of Jay-Z’s autobiography, Decoded, at his publisher’s office and read it. She wrote a response to it, included in the afterword, in which she connected Decoded to Malcolm X’s autobiography and the poetry of Emily Dickinson and T. S. Eliot. Jay-Z was reportedly so pleased with this that he jokingly said that his work could be taken off the shelves. For Worden, this story humorously emphasizes that the book, now that it was understood to have literary value, had surpassed any possible economic value. ↩