Decadent Modernity

BookDecadent Modernity

Decadent Modernity

Civilization and 'Latinidad' in Spanish America, 1880-1920

Liverpool Latin American Studies, 17


September 1st, 2021



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How did Latin Americans represent their own countries as modern? By treating modernity as a ubiquitous category in which ideas of progress and decadence are far from being mutually exclusive, this book explores how different groups of intellectuals, between the late nineteenth and the early twentieth century, drew from European sociological and medical theories to produce a series of cultural representations based on notions of degeneration. Through a comparative analysis of three country case studies − Argentina, Uruguay and Chile − the book investigates four themes that were central to definitions of Latin American modernity at the turn of the century: race and the nation, the search for the autochthonous, education, and aesthetic values. Using a transnational approach, it shows how civilizational constructs were adopted and adapted in a post-colonial context where cultural modernism foreshadowed economic modernization. In doing this, this work sheds new light on the complex discursive negotiations through which the idea of ‘Latin America’ became gradually established in the region.


'This strikingly original book analyses how intellectuals in Argentina, Chile and Uruguay explored the concept of degeneration as inherent within their emerging modern nations. In this interpretation, the Latinity of Latin America is seen not as the wellspring of civilisation but as a source of over refined decadence. Thus there is a paradox at the heart of their nations whose development was based on widespread immigration from southern Europe: that progress and modernisation were inextricably bound up with Latin decadence and degeneration. Ways out of this dilemma were found by promoting different forms of regeneration. Based on a vast range of primary and secondary sources, theoretically informed, elegantly structured and fluently written, this comparative study offers a fresh and very substantial contribution to our understanding of the processes of modernity and modernisation in Latin America.'
John King, University of Warwick

‘Two key ideas are at the core of Coletta's important book on Spanish American modernities at the turn of the twentieth century. The first is that a common thread runs through the ways in which these 'multiple modernities' unfolded in the region: the widely accepted polarity between 'progress' and 'degeneration' (or 'civilization' and 'barbarism') can be seen, rather than as a rigid relation between opposites, as an intrinsically complementary one. [...] The second idea that informs the book is that the notion of 'Latinity' is key to understanding the forces of regeneration that were advocated to free the young American nations from modernity's 'degenerative' tendencies.’
Eduardo Zimmermann, Estudios Interdisciplinarios de América Latina y el Caribe

‘The book makes use of extensive primary sources, from which telling details are selected. It gathers together key contributions from the time (for example, that of Carlos Octavio Bunge) as well as those contributions that history has unfairly – though perhaps inevitably – forgotten. It is at its most effective when working outwards from these texts.’
Adam Sharman, Journal of Latin American Studies

Author Information

Michela Coletta is Assistant Professor in Hispanic Studies at the University of Warwick and Associate Fellow of the Institute of Latin American Studies, University of London.

Table of Contents

Table of Contents
Section TitlePagePrice
1. Raza latina: immigration and decadence at the fin de siècle39
Introduction: race and nation in the Southern Cone39
Uruguay: antieuropeismo and tradition43
Immigration and civilization in Argentina49
Raza latina and raza chilena54
2. Mythologizing the internal Other: rural tradition as antidote to modern civilization67
Introduction: literary criollismos and national culture67
Argentina and Uruguay: la raza vencida73
The gaucho oriental: Tratado de la imbecilidad del pais85
Chile: geografia humanizada88
3. National regeneration and the education of the Latin American elites96
Introduction: education vis-à-vis racial and cultural determinism96
Krausismo and the Escuela Nueva: two models of education102
Intellectual education versus practical education107
National language and education in the River Plate117
4. Against the poetics of decadence: Latin America and the aesthetics of regeneration126
Introduction: the sociology of art in the Southern Cone126
José Enrique Rodó and Rubén Darío129
Ariel and aesthetic education136
Arielismo and the politics of aesthetics140