Intimations of Modernity: Civil Culture in Nineteenth-Century Cuba

Intimations of Modernity: Civil Culture in Nineteenth-Century Cuba

Intimations of Modernity: Civil Culture in Nineteenth-Century Cuba

Intimations of Modernity: Civil Culture in Nineteenth-Century Cuba

Synopsis

Louis A. Perez Jr.'s new history of nineteenth-century Cuba chronicles in fascinating detail the emergence of an urban middle class that was imbued with new knowledge and moral systems. Fostering innovative skills and technologies, these Cubans became deeply implicated in an expanding market culture during the boom in sugar production and prior to independence. Contributing to the cultural history of capitalism in Latin America, Perez argues that such creoles were cosmopolitans with powerful transnational affinities and an abiding identification with modernity. This period of Cuban history is usually viewed through a political lens, but Perez, here emphasizing the character of everyday life within the increasingly fraught colonial system, shows how moral, social, and cultural change that resulted from market forces also contributed to conditions leading to the collapse of the Spanish colonial administration.

Perez highlights women's centrality in this process, showing how criollas adapted to new modes of self-representation as a means of self-fulfillment. Increasing opportunities for middle-class women's public presence and social participation was both cause and consequence of expanding consumerism and of women's challenges to prevailing gender hierarchies. Seemingly simple actions--riding a bicycle, for example, or deploying the abanico, the fan, in different ways--exposed how traditional systems of power and privilege clashed with norms of modernity and progress.

Excerpt

The character of the history of Cuba was fixed early in the nineteenth century at the about moment that Cubans imagined the need for a proper history of their own. From that time forward, historical knowledge of Cuba has hewed to a well-defined narrative arc, one shaped discursively around the formation of nation, something of a chronicle of national liberation given principally to the celebration of collective resolve and commemoration of individual valor. Much of the historical literature has been given to the heroic, an account of a people to whom is ascribed indomitable will confronting adversaries possessed of unyielding determination, from which are derived two principal narrative subsets of struggle: against colonialism (Spain) and against imperialism (the United States).

The history of Cuba in the nineteenth century, and much of the twentieth, has been fashioned around the problem of the nation and its principal corollary attributes of national sovereignty and self-determination. The pursuit of sovereign nationhood—as a nineteenth-century popular project and a twentieth-century political program—has defined the purpose to which much of the creative energy of historians of Cuba has been given. The primacy of nation has become so deeply inscribed into the very fabric of historical knowledge that it often tends to pass unrecognized, thereupon to serve as the assumptions into which successive generations of scholars have been socialized. The history of the Cuban people has been understood principally as a process contingent on and contained within a paradigm of liberation, organized around historical narratives that have privileged the pursuit of nation almost to the exclusion of everything else.

A cursory review of much of the rich historical literature of Cuba invites the inference that the principal determinant of the “worthiness” of subjects of historical significance has been derived largely from and . . .

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