David Bushnell’s The Making of Modern Colombia

I don’t intend this to be a proper review but a short comment on David Bushnell’s The Making of Modern Colombia: A Nation in Spite of Itself (1993), which I just finished reading.

The book, the first of the kind to have been published in English, although outdated now, is a good introduction to the history of Colombia from colonial times (first chapter), the period just before and after Independence (chapter two),  the three stages of Gran Colombia (chapter three), New Granada (chapter four) and, finally, Colombia (from chapter five to eleven). Its chronological organisation helps framing events although many of them obviously overlap.

The author shows a good outstanding and vast knowledge of the country and its history, and its style makes the text easily accessible for any type of reader. This last point, though a quality, also hints at a shortcoming from the point of view of those readers in need of a fully referenced academic book. Though the author provides some references to certain claims in endnotes, many other (quite important) remain largely unreferenced.

My main critique to The Making of Modern Colombia is that it is a somewhat ‘sanitised’ version of the history of the country which, firstly, starts from the premise of modernisation as the unique desired goal of any social organisation, while paying only marginal attention to its nefarious effects; secondly, it presents every single government in the history of Colombia as a Nation-State in a far too positive light. Although, Bushnell  notes some negative traits of successive administrations, he seems to relegate the worst to the margins in a way that minimises them. His narrative seems thus framed as to leave in the reader the idea that although there have been problems of many kinds with the political class that has always ruled Colombia, the successive administrations have mostly done all they could have so as to finally bring Colombia into modernity.

There are some problematic phrasings which evidence that the author seems to put the emphasis on the goal –making of Colombia a modern nation– without caring too much about the means. On page 267, for instance, when reporting on the reduction of cocaine business in Colombia, he expresses himself in the following terms: ‘Thanks in part to the Colombian government’s efforts at repression, Colombia’s relative share of the [cocaine] business had been slipping vis-à-vis’ neighbouring countries, where ‘repression’ seems to stand as being a good measure (emphasis mine). Another euphemism that seems employed to cast a not too damning light upon the State is found on page 253 when referring to the theft of arms from a military installation in Bogotá in 1979 by members of the left-wing urban guerrilla M-19: ‘The army succeeded in recapturing the arms and seizing a large number of M-19 activists and left-wing sympathisers, many of whom were very roughly handled in the crackdown’ (Bushnell, 253) (emphasis mine).

That state violence has been a constant along the history of Colombia is just hinted at but not given much importance. Morever, it is practically never mentioned in the book. One of the rare occasions the book mentions this comes on page 257 where state violence during Turbay Ayala administration is referred to only to be instantly downgraded by comparing it to the abuses under the military governments of Argentina or Chile. According to Bushnell, in contrast to these dictatorships, under Turbay’s (democratic) rule abuses were discussed in open fora ‘(though not without danger at times to the denouncer) [!]’ (Bushnell, 257). Yet, he seems to complain, ‘by the early 1980s Colombia was receiving much unfavourable attention from international human rights organizations such as Amnesty International’ (Bushnell, 257).

Finally, terms such as displacement, rape, enforced disappearance, and torture appear seldom, if ever. Which is striking given the context. For instance, by 2012 the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) had already been established in Colombia for 40 years, Colombia is indeed their largest operation in the Americas). Nothing is said of paramilitaries and their early links with the state and public figures, thought it is also true the peak of paramilitary violence came after the publication of the book.



What is the point of academic writing?

I’m fed up with this chapter I have been “on the verge of finishing” for the last three months. I’m fed up with the corpus the chapter deals with, a semi-pornographic magazine I loath and yet think is worth writing 30000 words about. I have become so damn familiar with my tools and objects of study that I no longer see the point. I am depressed of knowing once all this is written only those already agreeing with me will agree. Worse: only those already agreeing with me will be reading it. What is the point of academic writing? When I decided to move out of literary criticism I did it because I wanted to have a closer connexion with the real world. I was tired of that strain of intellectual elitism that idealises literature. I no longer agreed with putting the written word on a pedestal. I wanted to do research that had a certain impact, research that could lead to improve people’s life, for instance, the lives of those who, unlike myself, didn’t go university. I discovered Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) and Deborah Cameron’s work and thought that studying linguistics would imply a move towards an area that had more serious involvement with everyday life. I saw it as an excellent opportunity to bridge the gap between academia and the real world. How wrong I was. Once enrolled in the university and settled in the country this university was based it appeared that CDA was not even considered linguistics proper, so I found myself writing, among other unwanted essays, a seriously-difficult-to-conceive essay for Syntax on the universality of the grammatical subject. Apparently, “real impact” would have to wait. Once I finished my MPhil in Linguistics I started my (funded) PhD in Cultural Studies, Feminist Theory, and Postcolonial Studies. Finally, I naively thought, my work is going to be moving out of the ivory tour of intellectual masturbation towards the terrain of the quotidian. If the object of study concerns the lives of so many people, I argued with myself, studying it would obviously have some impact, right? Once again, wrong. My work won’t have any impact. What seems obvious and is dear to me is clearly still miles away from being grasped by the vast majority of the people I wish would care. Nobody will care, apart again, by those who already care and already agree with me. Though I work on mass media and culture, and how these intersect with the political arena –the fields virtually everybody is concerned with– what I write will remain forever out of  reach. The language, the scope, the theoretical underpinnings, everything. So, again, what is the point of academic writing?


Link: “Freakish Fat,” “Wretched Black”

For those interested in Cultural Studies, Judith Butler’s theoretical work on subjection and the performativity of gender, and/or Colombia, here I am providing the link to my article “‘Freakish Fat,’ ‘Wretched Black'” that just appeared in Feminist Media Studies.


This paper explores the construction of female abject beings in Colombian contemporary media and culture comparing a character in the 2010 telenovela Chepe Fortuna named Venezuela, and the cultural representation of Piedad Córdoba. I argue that the construction of these two characters as abject beings is coherent with the dominant discourse of Alvaro Uribe’s national project, which relied on a strong nationalist rhetoric based on binary oppositions of the type “we/other.” In this context both Chepe Fortuna’s Venezuela and Piedad Córdoba are constructed as “other.” While Venezuela’s abjection is partly effected on the basis of her being fat and black, Córdoba’s is on the basis of her being a left-wing politician, and mediated through her being a black female. These two instances evidence an approach to femaleness that goes hand-in-hand with particular understandings of female subjectivity within current post-feminist paradigms.




The tyrannical hegemony of MS Word

Today is the day when I say it bluntly: it is high time for the humanities to catch up with certain scholarly practices that have been established in the sciences for a while now. I am talking about platforms for producing knowledge, such as document preparation systems, and platforms for the circulation of that knowledge, such as repositories. I think there is no doubt that these practices are of benefit for both the development of the areas themselves –be it mathematics or anthropology– and for the researchers working in those areas. There are, however, certain domains of knowledge for which these issues should occupy a top spot in their rank of priorities. I am talking about those areas in the humanities where theoretical concerns include the question of the imbalance of power between, for instance, the global North and the global South, and how such imbalance impinges upon the question of the production and the circulation of knowledge.

I decided to write about this now because I have just been confronted to a particular situation where there is clearly no overlap between the scholarly topic I am engaging with and the technical practice the journal I am submitting to encourages to engage in. Part of the argument I made in the article I wanted to submit to the journal in question relates to English as the language one must master for being granted scholarly legitimacy –even existence– in mainstream academia. Yet this journal, which uses the ScholarOne Manuscripts system,* has a very restricted range of file types it accepts: it restricts almost everything but MS Word documents. This means that not only one as a scholar has to have a premium command of English, the dominant scholarly language, but one also is compelled to use MS Word, the dominant typesetting tool.

While it will take probably forever to challenge the dominance of English as the academic lingua franca, challenging the dominance of technological tools is a real possibility. Yet as long as journals don’t open up to that possibility this situation will remain uncontested.

So, what is the problem with MS Word?

A straightforward answer to this question would be “everything”, ranging from technical issues up to political ones. Charlie Stross summarises MS Word ills in these lines:

Microsoft Word is a tyrant of the imagination, a petty, unimaginative, inconsistent dictator that is ill-suited to any creative writer’s use. Worse: it is a near-monopolist, dominating the word processing field. Its pervasive near-monopoly status has brainwashed software developers to such an extent that few can imagine a word processing tool that exists as anything other than as a shallow imitation of the Redmond Behemoth.

Stross, as he says in the text where I am taking this quote from, has a long experience in working with word processors and text editors. My own experience is far more limited. Although I work now in the humanities, I was initially trained in Computer Engineering. There were only two good things that came out my getting a degree in that field: first, I got a scholarship to move abroad, which allowed me to change my career orientation; second, I learned to use LaTeX.

LaTeX is everything MS Word is not, that is, a free and open source document preparation system designed to handle medium to large documents with high quality results. MS Word, on the other hand, is a paying WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) word processor that is simply incapable of handling medium documents, such as articles, let alone long documents, such as theses or books. Worse: it cannot make optimal use of automatic referencing systems, which, I believe, is an essential tool when it comes to academic writing.

I stopped using MS Word 15 years ago after the nightmarish experience of having to write my 100 pages long Master’s Thesis in Engineering. Some people keep telling me that surely MS Word must have improved in fifteen long years. Sure, MS Word has improved. And yet, it still manages to remain rotten. As recently as a year ago, a colleague of mine was finishing her Doctoral dissertation. I had been trying to convince this person to move out of amateurish MS Word to something professional, but she didn’t really have the time to do it. By the time she had to organise her nearly 300 pages document for submission she was banging her head on the wall. She had a file for each chapter and trying to put them together proved impossible. The solution she had to retort to was to do the pagination manually, compile her references for each chapter individually (apparently if you do it as you write the programme slows down to the extent you cannot use it), generate a PDF for each chapter, and find a program that will integrate those PDFs in a single document. On top of that, you need to buy a licence in order to use this Marvel of Technology. I mean, this had to be a JOKE, unfunny, but a joke nonetheless. The weird thing, however, is that it isn’t. MS Word is by far the world’s dominant typesetting tool.

Thus scholars keep paying for a product that makes their lives difficult. We could recite neoliberal mantras here: “everyone is free to buy what they want”, “we are autonomous individuals that have choices”. Fair enough. Yet, one thing is for the majority “to choose” a useless dominant tool, and another very different one is for journals to force scholars to use dominant typesetting tools that are both expensive and rubbish. And this falls indeed in the realm of responsibility of each journal, especially those journals which capitalise on academic work that is asking questions about imagining the world otherwise.

Free and open source software is indeed a real possibility for contesting technological monopolies. The fact that it is free –although if you use it you should somehow contribute to the system– implies that you don’t need to have money in order to have access to good products. The fact that it is open source implies anyone in the community can contribute to make it better for the good of the products themselves and for the benefit of the community as a whole.

Hence, I think we need to bring this discussion to the table within the humanities. It is really for the benefit of all.

* The ScholarOne Manuscripts system is also used in science, so they have the technological capabilities to deal with LaTeX (.tex) files (also PDFs). So, if a journal does not have that option it is because of the journal not because of the system.


A few months ago I started a blog where I tried to introduce LaTeX for the uninitiated. If you are interested you can access it here. I would recommend to start by post 1.

Let’s talk research (but money is the issue)

Dutch universities are reputed in academia for their ruthless neoliberal way of functioning. Yesterday I got proof of it while attending a research meeting at the department where I am spending this academic year. This department, which I won’t mention out of respect for the people being part of it and who are not to blame for how the university (the world) works, is one of the good ones within the faculty of humanities. It also has an excellent academic reputation in the Netherlands, in Europe, and even overseas.

The meeting comprised three parts: a round of presentations of the new people, presentation and discussion of one PhD candidate’s research proposal, and details about current projects, future events, and money issues. Nothing remarkable emerged from the two first activities. The third one, however, was a whole new experience for me. The department’s director talked about various things: diverse European networks to which the department belongs, upcoming academic events, conferences. I was having trouble following what she was saying, which is not surprising given the fact that I know nothing about this University and this department. But then it struck me: she was using a lot of terms I was unfamiliar with in the context of a research meeting. I was so astounded about the nature of the terms she kept using over and over that I took my notebook and wrote them down.

She spoke of money, stakeholders, consortium, strategic teams, lobby (a particular woman who was a lobbyist in Brussels that would be good to contact), 15 million Euros we could eventually demand to the UN. Another woman who got one and a half million Euros for a project from some entity was also explaining to us how the strategy for organising certain conferences was to follow the money. Money is the cue. Not ideas, research interests, research needs, academic collaboration. No. The cue, the issue, is money.

Although I have been in various universities in different countries this was a first time experience for me. We all know how academia, and more particularly the human sciences, has difficulties surviving in the profit oriented world we live in. Working conditions for academics at universities everywhere are horrendously precarious, and money and funding are a central issue. They have become THE issue.

It was not encouraging at all. It was sad and worrying. It made think of Bruno Latour reporting on his ethnographic work in the seventies. The academic world has not got any better since Latour published La vie de laboratoire. In fact it is getting worse by the day.