Edward Said
How do Palestinian author Edward Said's perspectives on representations of the "other" relate to news coverage on Latin America? [Ulf Andersen/Getty Images]
The Listening Post

Reading Latin America through Edward Said

Media and the politics of representation in Latin America, from the ‘perfect Latin American’ to the ‘authentic’ one.

Natalia Vinelli is an Argentinean journalist and the cofounder of an alternative news channel called Barricada TV (Frontline TV). The outlet came into being as part of a media reform law pushed forward by the Kirchner presidencies in which the heavily concentrated Argentinean media landscape was to be divided into three segments – one each for commercial outlets, government media and community networks.

Our world is reduced to an immutable essence, a superficially marvellous essence .. but which can prosper if it follows the advice of its civilised, powerful mentors.

by Natalia Vinelli

That last segment – which has seen major setbacks after right-wing President Mauricio Macri took power in 2015 – is where Barricada TV emerged, and from where those who founded it talk about the need to produce a decentred, local gaze distanced from both the interests of big global networks producing coverage on Latin America from the north, and the commercial channels governed by market logics in the south. We talked to Vinelli about how Edward Said’s work is a fitting frame through which to think about media representations on and from Latin America.

The Listening Post: The central concept put forward by Edward Said in his book Orientalism deals with how colonial power produces representations of the “other”. How does Said’s thinking relate to media representations and news coverage on Latin America?

Natalia Vinelli: Said’s work is very relevant for anyone analysing international media’s conception and representation of Latin America. The images and narratives that are constantly circulated by the mainstream press, by soap operas and dramas, find us cast in stereotypical roles, in line with the prejudices of the West – countries that our economies are still dependent on.

Take a news outlet such as CNN Espanol – it projects a vision of what “the perfect Latin American” should be: a businessman who is competitive, charming and open to western modernity – servile to the rules and regulations of our globalised world, apologetic about his country’s underdevelopment and who feels part of a regional elite who are ultimately aligned with US interests – or at least with the globalising hegemony of free trade agreements.

This “perfect Latin American” stands in contrast to another stereotype which we could define as “the authentic Latin American” – it reflects another angle of the north’s view of us. Cultural industries project an image of emotional nations wedded to the whims of authoritarian and populist leaders, and in this way, they condemn us to a permanent child-like status which prevents us from making decisions about our future. These pre-conceived “Latin Americans” are seen as children or noble savages in countries destined by their nature to live off farming and the extraction of natural resources. Our world is reduced to an immutable essence, a superficially marvellous essence which is also backward and even sometimes fearsome, but which can prosper if it follows the advice of its civilised, powerful mentors.

The Listening Post: Said’s work has inspired many journalists from the “global south” who are committed to a decentred production of news. The pan-Latin American broadcaster TeleSUR was conceived with this vision, in a context where traditionally, there have been no regional channels speaking for the continent, from the continent as it were. How do you assess the channel and its output?

Natalia Vinelli: TeleSUR has covered Latin America from our own point of view. Not as victims or as infantilised peoples, but as subjects, as a diverse “we”. The TeleSUR project dismantled the north’s discourses and representations of the region in an attempt to build a counter-hegemony of information across the continent. It managed to counteract the likes of CNN and even at times to impose its own agenda on CNN.

Many a time, TeleSUR works as an ethical standard, just as the Cuban press agency Prensa Latina did in its inception. The problem, in my view, is that its force becomes limited when the logic of propaganda prevails over the logic of democratisation, or when it takes a shortcut and copies the CNN format to turn it upside down. This is how our philosophy of placing our north in our south – as expressed in Joaquin Torres Garcia’s Inverted Map of South America – loses its potency. But without a doubt, this gaze makes a difference in the international media landscape.

The Listening Post: Through the orientalist gaze, the “other” is portrayed as the binary opposite of civilisation, reason, science, modernity. Could you talk to us about how journalism in Latin America supports this narrative and perpetuates it?

Natalia Vinelli: For “the West”, Latin America is a barbarian, backward entity, summing up the cultural shortcomings derived from the crossbreeding between the indigenous populations and the Spanish Catholic tradition. Latinos, in the north’s imagery, are lazy, promiscuous, unfocused, party-loving, violent, thieving, superstitious, etc. Western governments and media, however well-intentioned they may be, apply that conventional wisdom of the first world.

This narrative becomes more important when it is internalised by the big Latin American media groups and by a part of society. The opposition between the “we”, self-defined as superior and domineering, and the “other”, which underlies the modern imperialist push which conquered the world at the end of the 19th century, ends up informing the vision of the regional elites, who are prone to interiorising the stereotypes created by the north. They assume the imposed role of ‘perfect Latin- Americans’ which we mentioned at the beginning, acting as enforcers of this narrative as well as the internal base for the construction of Latin America as a barbaric region.

The Listening Post: This idea that orientalism works internally is a suggestive one when talking about Argentina. Way before Said wrote Orientalism, Argentina’s modern nation state was being imagined and written. Talk to us about these foundational narratives that seem to echo precisely what Said was intimating.

Natalia Vinelli: Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, who was a journalist before he became Argentina’s president in 1868, formulated a foundational myth based on the paradox of “civilisation or barbarism”. In a radical proposition, he laid out a myth which would inform the vision of Europe with regard to relations of identity emerging in Argentina during the civil war. Modern capitalist relations appear in the framework of “civilization” and are exported by Europe, and the US, in the form of capital and idealised cultural norms. The “other” is located in the pole of “barbarism”, including everything opposed or non-compliant with the penetration of “civilisation”, capital, and the vision that elites had of the place of their new country in the world. The “Gauchos” – the Creoles of mixed race and farming or working-class extraction – belong to this “otherness”, alongside their leaders, the non-integrated Indians and the countries representing other visions of the world, such as Paraguay, or the rest of Latin America. The myth of “civilisation or barbarism” was the most advanced ideological expression of the local dominant class. It endowed them with a legitimising ideology, which would help to spread the idea that the economic penetration of the dominant powers was “progressive”.

However, we must not forget that there is also a counter-myth in the debate of Argentine national identity, and that is the myth of the “Gaucho Martin Fierro”, where the “other” becomes the “us”. While this myth emerges once the social power of the Gaucho is in decline, it continues to operate in the formulation of a national identity as an alternative to Sarmiento’s eurocentric paradox. Martin Fierro embodies a national base upon which to build a subordinate identity as persecuted subjects, who once they become aware of this historical fact are able to confront the “civilisers”.

The Listening Post: Let’s bring this notion of “internal orientalism” to the present and your work. How do you think Barricada TV, the outlet you co-founded, could be interpreted through the eyes of Edward Said?

Natalia Vinelli: When I was introduced to Said’s work, it crystallised the idea that it is not possible for us to continue our task without questioning the very essence of the Latin American label. Without questioning, essentially, the power structures that would see the world divided between good and bad, development and underdevelopment, between civilisation and barbarism. Said taught us that our culture cannot be represented by its western interpretation.

Barricada TV is an alternative television channel which is broadcast out of an old metal factory that was occupied by its workers in the centre of Buenos Aires. This location defines the identity of the channel, as do its political and communicational objectives. Once, at a talk with fellow journalists, we were told that our output wasn’t very televisual. That comment was a reference to our style of reporting on a story in which we gave homeless people the microphone so that they could talk to us about their lives and how they had been forced to occupy empty flats for the winter. That’s one of many examples which shows the need for another kind of approach that breaks with stereotypes and exposes the mercantile logic of mainstream communication when it comes to setting agendas and citing sources.

At Barricada TV we want to give the spotlight, the front page, the leading story to the voices of those in the struggles being ignored by the big media outlets. I am talking about the deprived areas of society, those who do not have media representation, or who are usually stereotyped not just by international news narratives, but by the local ones. That’s what we mean by “internal orientalism”.

Natalia Vinelli is the cofounder of Barricada TV – a cooperative TV channel and is author of Television From Below: History, Difference and the Journalism of Counter-information.

This article forms part of an online project by Al Jazeera English’s media analysis show The Listening Post. Follow #MediaTheorised

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policies.