To this day, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento's nineteenth-century treatise on 'Civilisation and Barbarism' is seen as a cornerstone of Latin American proposals of modernity, reflecting the continent's hybrid character and its awkward yet symbiotic relationship with Europe. At the heart of Sarmiento's thought was the image of the desert that he identified as the major obstacle to progress in Argentina. The desert was both a horizon within the imaginary of the nation and the principal arena for the struggle between the forces of progress and those of anarchy. These forces were perceived in highly racialised terms. The barbarian inhabitants of the desert -- so distant in Sarmiento's view from the nomadic North African tribes from which he proudly claimed descent -- embodied in the figure of the Indian and the Gaucho were to be replaced by Anglo-Saxon yeomen who would bring civilisation to the vast space of the pampas. This paper argues that these racialised discourses expressed contradictory expectations regarding ideals of freedom and the requirements of government and that the continuing resonance of the symbolic repertoire deployed in Sarmiento's work continues to inform contemporary expressions of power and of the relationship between the individual and the state. The particular project of nation building and modernity that Sarmiento's work fomented has entailed the exclusion and repression of women and of groups identified as 'the masses' and associated with 'barbarism'. At the same time, ideals of masculinity are intimately tied to notions of freedom, autonomy and the exercise of violence. At a more general level, the paper suggests that concepts and symbols of gender and race permeate state institutions and practices and provide national and other political ideologies with emotional and symbolic content, simultaneously reproducing divisions and bridging gaps in the distribution of wealth and power. The character and specificity of these symbolic constructions are therefore of crucial importance to our understanding of power, politics and the state.
Last modified: 7 May 2001