Both Doing and Making: Radical Politics and Homemade Books in Latin America

“The better the book, the cheaper it should be.” Author Guillermo de Pósfay´s comments serve as a manifesto calling for inexpensive, autonomous book publishing and distribution as a tool to disseminate knowledge and bring about social transformation. “We gain much more by selling 10 books at cost than one book at an inflated price; … 10 men will be better equipped to fight for everyone.”

On Thursday, January 16th, Magalí Rabasa, a doctoral candidate in Cultural Studies and 2013-2014 DHI Dissertation Year Fellow, presented an overview of her research into the subject of alternative presses in a talk titled “The Organic Book: Ethnography & Print Networks in Twenty-first Century Latin American Movements,” sponsored by the Cultural Studies Graduate Group Colloquium Series. Rabasa discussed the distinctly non-digital practice by which small, independent collectives across Latin America produce cheap, “organic” books as part of a grassroots practice meant to educate a broad readership and challenge neo-liberal economic policies and exploitive hierarchies of power and knowledge.

Rabasa, is completing her dissertation project on “The Book in Movement: Radical Politics & the Recrafting of Books in Latin America,” in which she examines the relationships between alternative publishing houses and autonomous social movements. Rabasa’s conceptualization of the “organic book” draws on Gramsci´s “organic intellectual” to denote a kind of book whose authors are directly involved in the politics and practices they theorize.

The mode of production for organic books bears a strong similarity to that of pirated books: cheaply produced in small shops on thin paper and full of editing errors and corrections. Yet the shops aren’t doing this to make a profit; the books, and the community process of learning how to make them by hand, respond to an inquietud de hacer algo, or a need to do—and make—something useful.

Drawing on her fieldwork in cities across South America, Magalí spoke about El Gato, an independent Bolivian craftsman based in La Paz who publishes this type of political literature. El Gato´s practice is more than simply an alternative model of publishing; as Rabasa explains, “It’s part of the ‘wild politics of Bolivia;’ a constantly evolving political experiment.”

Most “organic” books are primarily concerned with themes such as political activism, indigenous autonomy, and popular education, yet Rabasa has noticed that they are beginning to branch out into areas of alternative lifestyles and women´s health. For her, figures like El Gato challenge Raymond Williams´ perceived division between intellectual and manual labor; they function both as intellectuals and as workers by disseminating politics through their own print.

In another example, Rabasa showed photographs she had taken of a small community collective in Buenos Aires that produces hand-sewn books in limited quantities using leftover scraps of cloth for the covers. The brightly colored fragments are swept off the floors of neighboring textile sweatshops that typically employ migrant workers from Bolivia. By using the cloth pieces just as they are found, without trimming them into a more practical shape, the members of the collective feel they are not only “making something useful from the unworkable,” but they are honoring the nameless worker whose hands cut and shaped the fragment.

Rabasa sees the materiality of these books, and the collective, community-based workshops that produce them, as powerful expressions of “continuous provisionality and constant improvisation,” a way of doing things differently in order to make cracks in an unjust system. These practices involve learning and teaching, take place beyond the law and beyond profit, and spread knowledge. The organic books become what Rabasa considers “mutable living social objects” that emerge from the scraps of the system and are shared, used, and passed along in spite of it.