Theses Doctoral

Amateur Citizens: Culture and Democracy in Contemporary Cuba

Duong, Paloma

This dissertation studies the creative practices of citizens who use cultural resources to engage in political criticism in contemporary Cuba. I argue that, in order to become visible as political subjects in the public sphere, these citizens appeal to cultural forms and narratives of self-representation that elucidate the struggles for recognition faced by emerging social actors. I examine blogs, garage bands, art performances, home art exhibits, digital literary supplements, improvised academies, and informal networks of publication that, as forms of aesthetic experimentation with stories of everyday life, disclose a social text. I suggest that their narrative choices emphasize their status as 'regular citizens' in order to distinguish themselves from both traditional voices of political opposition and institutionally accredited cultural producers--professional artists, academics, musicians. This recasts sites of cultural production as models of alternative citizenship where the concept of the political is re-imagined and where the commonplace, pejorative meaning of the term amateur is contested. On the fringes of the republic of letters, adjacent to traditional sites of cultural production, these oblique uses of culture consequently question legitimate forms of public speech. They demand that the way in which the relationship between aesthetics and politics in Cuba has been traditionally studied be reconsidered.
Read in tandem with discourses against and about them from the lettered city--in literature, cultural criticism, film, and visual arts--I also follow the trope of the amateur under revolutionary cultural politics. I suggest that these contemporary voices have a contradictory genealogy in the cultural practices of the early decades of the Cuban Revolution. I try to show that these cultural practices become politically and socially significant because they try to resist--though not always successfully--cooptation by two forces: the remnant of bureaucratic, state-capitalist tendencies on one hand, and the rapid commercialization of popular culture for a foreign audience on the other. As a result, both the reconfigurations of the cultural field and the contested meanings of democracy in post-Cold War Cuba are re-examined through a reading of informal hubs of cultural production. The functions of culture in late socialism can be then comparatively studied by looking at an institutional framework in transition through the social and political subjectivities that are both expressed in, and constituted by, corresponding aesthetic practices and forms.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Latin American and Iberian Cultures
Thesis Advisors
Alonso, Carlos J.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
September 9, 2014