The Devil Behind the Mirror by Stephen Gregory

April 10, 2008


by Stephen Gregory, 2006, University of California Press, 298 pages,
$21.95 paperback

In the 1990s, in that window between the Soviet collapse and the September 11 attacks, national borders seemed to be withering away. The rise of the Internet, the increasingly broad diffusion of digital media, cheap airline tickets—space-time compression appeared to be accelerating. And so one spoke increasingly of fluid boundaries, deterritorialized identities and “transmigrants” who occupied a kind of postmodern hyperspace. And of all the migrants in this dawning era of transnationalism, none were more paradigmatic than the Dominicans. Frequently hopscotching back and forth between the United States and home, Dominican transmigrants—bilingual and bicultural—were seen to embody this new phenomenon.

Today, of course, national borders are back with a vengeance (if they ever went away). Steven Gregory, in his new ethnography The Devil Behind the Mirror: Globalization and Politics in the Dominican Republic, sets out from the premise that “the ‘deterritorialized’ status of the contemporary world” has been exaggerated and the “critical role played by states in constituting and disciplining labor power” neglected. Rather than produce another ethnography of Domini-Yorks, Gregory, a professor at Columbia University, endeavors to present “the nightmare face of globalization seldom addressed in the scholarly literature.”

Knitting together eminently readable descriptions of people and places with a sophisticated theoretical apparatus, Gregory introduces the reader to a largely immobile cast of characters, many of whom dream of leaving the Dominican Republic but cannot. From the tourist meccas of Andrés and Boca Chica—adjacent coastal towns to the east of Santiago, both of them formerly home to sugar mills—he sketches this nightmare as a Janus-like bifurcation between the insular and heavily guarded zona turística and la comunidad, emphasizing the ways in which people and power actively construct social space, as opposed to merely occupying it.

The book’s six chapters explore various themes related to this configuration of power in the binary spatial coordinates of a tourist and export-processing enclave. These include, most interestingly, vignettes of his interactions with informal workers and members of the local community (Gregory may be the first anthropologist to have starred in a locally produced telenovela). Here, neoliberalism’s marginalized characters—mere human scenery, perhaps, to your average beer-swilling gringo tourist—come center-stage: buscones (investigators hired to search for lost birth records), delincuentes (young unlicensed workers and panhandlers), fisgones (hip-hop-styled brokers who help tourists get everything from the best tables at restaurants and mix CDs to drugs and sex), motoconchos (motorcycle taxi drivers) and tigueres (male hustlers).

Luxury tourism, as previous works have argued, is inherently exclusionary, rarely hiring natives except for the most menial of jobs, and thus contributing little to local economies. The question then becomes how to keep the riff-raff out. Key to Gregory’s analysis of this phenomenon is his idea of citizenship as a “technology of power” that enables the tourism police to enforce a kind of social hygiene on the behalf of tourists, who do not want to be irritated by vendors or beggars. This exclusionary mechanism depends on the cédula, or national ID, which one must have in order to get formal work, such as selling goods in the zona playera. According to a recent report, more than a quarter of Dominicans—not to mention Dominicans of Haitian descent, none of whom qualify for citizenship by law—lack proper papers. In a country with few job opportunities even for the documented, the effects of this are devastating. (Gregory’s relatively prosperous research assistant made $390 in a good month.)

Perhaps the most useful of Gregory’s insights is his notion of the “imperial masculinity” underpinning sex tourism. This comes across when he observes a group of off-duty U.S. Army men—stationed in the country, he is told, to keep an eye on Cuba—being introduced to a pair of young prostitutes at a bar.

“Their interactions with the women (groping and gazing at their bodies, asking their ages, and posing for photographs),” he notes, “were theatrically performed so as to incite the collective participation of the men (through laughter, whooping and hollering, and catching each other’s eyes).” This homosocial dynamic fueled the men’s interactions with the prostitutes, even as their economic power reinforced their positioning of “Dominican women as docile bodies.”

The tourism industry emerges as an ambivalent affair, with a narrative of modernization and development through tourism jostling against one that casts the German, Italian, Canadian and U.S. visitors, particularly the single men looking for sex, as degrading traditional Dominican cultural values. (Most of Gregory’s bars and clubs that catered to sex tourists were owned by foreigners.)

Given the variety of Gregory’s interlocutors, from the informal workers to members of a neighborhood association to hotel owners, The Devil in the Mirror offers its readers a lively tour of the culture of Dominican neoliberalism, and indeed serves as a cogent introduction to the study of neoliberalism as an aspect of culture, and not just of political economy or policy making.

Pablo Morales is the editor of NACLA Report on the Americas.


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