Review: ‘Ideas and Transformations in the Americas’, UCL Institute of the Americas PG Conference

‘Ideas and Transformations in the Americas’, Second International Postgraduate Conference, UCL Institute of the Americas, 28 – 29 April 2016

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Following the success of its inaugural event last year, the UCL Institute of the Americas Research Network hosted its second International Postgraduate Conference entitled, ‘Ideas and Transformations in the Americas’. The two-day event was highly diverse, comprising of twenty-two thematically distinct panels, and bringing together sixty-four academics and researchers from across the Americas, Asia, and Europe. The range of perspectives this offered produced a coherent, engaging, and insightful conference.

Interdisciplinary panels, ranging from the ‘Unheard Voices of the Caribbean’ to ‘Transnational Perspectives of the US’, stimulated lively debate and reflection between chairs and audiences. These, and others, engaged with a range of historical approaches and topics, including the fifth session which brought together three historical readings of slavery in North America. This included an examination of the influence of conceptions of ‘Man’s Natural Rights’ as well as religious beliefs in the anti-slavery thought of Alexander McLeod. Abolitionism was also addressed through an analysis of the experiences and representations of freed and escaped slaves who made their way to British Canada following its relatively early abolition. The panel, whilst addressing different perspectives on slavery, also provoked a collective reflection on the role of utopic narrative amongst migratory groups for the audience. In turn, this also provoked a discussion on the role of the researcher: which narratives do we use and why?

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Delegates chatting over lunch

Varied methodologies were apparent also in the ‘Projections of Power’ panel, comprised of a lively trio of media-based presentations which questioned influence in the spaces between realities and representations. Femininity was an underlying theme, with an examination of the shifting trope of political women – most notably Hilary Clinton – in television against media representations juxtaposed against challenges to Western notions of gender through The Hyperwomen (2011), a film focusing on and produced in collaboration with the people of Kuikuro in Brazil’s Xingu region. Film was also used in this panel to highlight the perpetuated social exclusion and repressive conditions of indigenous citizens in the Peruvian film, Paraíso (2009). Each of these diverse papers engaged closely with hierarchical structures of power, and the discussions which followed highlighted the disjunction between representations and realities in each context.

Power was again a focus, although this time on a national level, in the ‘State Delegitimation’ panel. Including discussions of Mexico, Columbia, and Brazil, the varied scholarly backgrounds of the presenters led to a fascinating debate on the interplay of different criminal behaviours with the discourses of state failure in Latin America. In particular, it was demonstrated that the prevalence of exhortation by organized crime is indicative of the repeat victimization of specific types of Mexican businesses, rather than a symptom of institutional breakdown. This argument was supported by a later discussion contending that public perception of corruption is the key variable behind social mobilization in Brazil. These papers challenged accepted perceptions of state failure and institutional breakdown, acknowledging the complexity of the Latin American context. This intricacy was rendered in greater detail by the ‘Local Participation’ panel, with Jaskiran Chohan’s examination of Las Zonas de Reserva Campesina project in Colombia, and Antonio Peña’s reflection on his personally led project, Sopa Claustro, in Mexico. Both questioned the impact of local responses to traditional and powerful corporate food regimes in the region. The panel closed with Veronica Ramirez’s reflection on the participation of victims of the Colombian armed conflict in ‘Victim’s Boards’ as an innovative mechanism for building reparations programmes.

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Presenters on the ‘Social Movements’ Panel

Similarly, the ‘What to Remember’ panel highlighted the value of participatory means of rebuilding. It drew upon a recent, but growing, area of study: transitional justice and the potential of memory as a tool of reconciliation, through locally-led, traditionally prescribed and state-led processes of memory. The marking of local communities was a significant theme underpinning the panel. It was particularly evidenced in both the examination of the on-going ‘travelling museum’ memorialization process in Granada, Colombia, and the analysis of Brazil’s memories of the 1964-1985 dictatorship. The latter drew upon recent political identity crises in parliamentary and public spheres, questioning whether a failure to properly deal with the past has had long term effects on Brazil’s interpretation of democracy. The unpacking of this discussion – and particularly the notion of how to ‘deal’ with the past – was addressed by a later questioning of the use of museums as potential tools of decolonization rather than a means of perpetuating European perspectives.

The ‘Authoritarian Regimes in the Southern Cone’ panel illuminated how different communities have experienced and coped with the marginalization and repression of military rule. In particular, it featured the tracing of the collective public’s disillusionment with Argentine politics back to its experience of the National Reorganization Process, the military junta commonly referred to as El Proceso, deeming the 2015 death of federal prosecutor Alberto Nisman as a new critical juncture in this phenomenon. Argentinian politics were given a female voice in the analysis of the works of poet Alicia Borinsky, which provided an insight into both patriarchal repression and the practice of forced disappearance. Notions of violence were also extended to Chile, providing a discussion on how the shared experiences of institutional violence expanded the scope and inclusiveness of the activities of the Misión Iglesia Pentecostal church during the Pinochet dictatorship.

From locating the work of noted Chilean sociologist Julieta Kirkwood within the context of globalised 20th century feminism (Raul Burgos Pinto and Maria Fernanda Lanfranco), to examining the visual identity politics practised by Mexican mothers of feminicidio victims (Ricardo Gutiérrez Vargas), the panel ‘Women’s Movements’ evidenced both the diverse causes and strategies of women’s political mobilizations across modern Latin America and the shared demands of democratisation in the national and domestic spheres. The diversity of these discussions was characteristic of the event, and continued into the keynote session.

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Delegates awaiting the keynote speeches

The two keynote speakers, Professor Diane Negra and Professor Maxine Molyneux, perfectly reflected the two ends of the conference’s thematic spectrum, with Negra considering masculinity in twenty-first century media cultures, and Molyneux considering the femininity of social policies. Negra’s keynote captured the conference’s titular theme of transformations, through a discussion of how Western notions of acceptable masculinity have changed, epitomized by the male protagonist of US reality television show ‘My Cat From Hell’ (2011–). Rather than its previous associations with stigmatized ‘spinsterism’, Negra argued that cat care has become congruent with masculinity in international media cultures, especially when complemented with the macho televisual motifs of red convertibles and guitars. Similarly, cats have become the ‘unforeseen ubiquitous trope of the 21st century’, and perceived failures to be “cute” now warrant ‘rehabilitation’. In the context of the television show in question, Negra argued that the valorization of the male contribution to domesticity, in the form of cat care, has subsequently marginalized women. Exchanges with the audience contemplated whether cute cats have become a solution to social alienation and the ‘burden of humanity’.

Molyneux’s feminist reading of Latin America’s so-called ‘Pink Tide’ was thematically distinct from Negra’s contribution and reflected upon the recent but fading convergence of new socialist leadership in the region. Dialoguing with some of the prominent panel themes, Molyneux touched upon feminism, public participation, indigenous rights and the effects of neoliberalism in Latin America, guiding the audience from Brazil’s Conditional Cash Transfer programmes, to Chavez’s use of women in his campaign, to racial politics across the continent. While statistics show that the Pink Tide brought about quantitative improvements for participation, education and employment equality, Molyneux’s reading brought into question the depth of these apparent transformations.

In many ways the keynote speeches, like the conference itself, conversed, collaborated and complemented each other to create coherence within the seemingly endless topic of ‘Ideas and Transformations in the Americas’, and confirmed the success of the event as well as the academic challenge taken on by organizers and presenters.

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About Robbie Wilson

Robbie Wilson is currently completing an MSc in Latin Politics at the UCL Institute of the Americas. He joined the UCL-IA Research Network in 2015. His research interests focus on gender, historical memory and social movements in the Southern Cone
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