Conscience of Crisis: A Conversation with Nicholas D’Avella

Nicholas D’Avella is an anthropologist with research interests in markets, expert knowledge, and urban ecologies. His work brings concern with practices into dialogue with anthropological themes related to money, exchange, and value. His book, Concrete Dreams: Practice, Value, and Built Environments in Post-Crisis Buenos Aires was published in 2019 with Duke University Press.

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Vance: Before we get into it, I want to say that yours is hands-down the best English-language book on Argentina I’ve ever read, and one of my favorite books in general. I have my own copy now, and I look forward to what I’m sure will be multiple re-reads in the future.

I grew up in Argentina; my parents were missionaries there from 1988 to 2002, and I was there between the ages of 10 and 19. That places me in-country during the austral crisis in the late ’80s-early ’90s. Although I had already returned to the U.S. for college by that time, I was visiting my folks over the Christmas and New Year holidays in 2001-2002 when De la Rúa’s corralito was in full swing and the country cycled through five presidents in a week and a half. Finally, I was there when inflation set in again under Mauricio Macri in 2016-2017 and consumer goods tripled or quadrupled in value in a matter of months.

However, while I’ve witnessed a number of Argentine economic crises, I’d never really experienced one personally until this last time around. In the late ’80s, I was quite young and shielded by the fact that my family wasn’t really from Argentina. My parents were paid in dollars by employers in the United States, and we were free to leave the country at any time. Even recently, during Macri’s debacle, my exposure was relatively superficial; while my options were as limited in daily practice as anyone else’s, I was still free to leave at leisure and in fact did. This is a choice few have the wherewithal to make. I’m left with the question, then: how to understand the role of crisis in Argentine life? Since I admire your book, and since it deals directly with this question, in the context of the crisis of 2001-2003, I am thrilled to be able to speak with you.

I’m curious, right off the top, to know more about your connection to Argentina. What was it that attracted you to that country as a topic of research?

Nicholas: I started studying anthropology as a grad student, and was interested in cities and urban life, how cities grow and change over time. I wasn’t an anthropology undergrad, though; most anthropology students have previous experience in the field and connections to a particular country. I’d lived in London, but that didn’t strike me as a great choice for an anthropologist career-wise. There are anthropologists working in the United States; I could have stayed here to do my research, but I liked the idea of going somewhere else. I didn’t even speak Spanish the first time I went to Argentina, but I liked Latin America. I had a bunch of friends who had just gone to Buenos Aires on holiday and loved it. I had also just seen Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis’ 2004 film The Take, about worker takeovers of factories and hotels. It was really that sort of decision.

I was there for three months in 2005 and 2006, a month and a half in 2007, and then fulltime from 2008 to 2010. I went back for two more months in 2012 and then for three or four months in 2016. Of course, now I go back to visit friends and not for work. I didn’t have any connections there when I first went, but now I have many of them.

Vance: That really surprises me, because the comprehension of the country that you express in your book is quite deep, and quite personal as well. I kind of assumed you had a connection to Argentina similar to mine, going back years and years. I spent most of my childhood around people who had been working in the country in some cases for 20 to 30 years, and I didn’t necessarily see in them the level of investment in the place or the people that you show in your work.

Nicholas: I’m glad that came across. I definitely feel that connection and I wanted to express that in the book. It’s a very personal book, even though it’s not really about me. I decided to include some of those moments and stories that go beyond the facts and figures of the argument–conversations I had with close friends who taught me about things like the comics or the tango. I didn’t expect to include tango lyrics, for example, in the book because they’re so cliché, but I realized that if they are cliché, it’s because they’re very present in Argentina, so I figured out a way to use them after all. It seemed very relevant, and stemmed from conversations and questions asked to people I spent a lot of time with and with whom I developed very warm relationships.

Vance: Facundo Manes, an Argentine neuroscientist, talks in his book El cerebro argentino [The Argentine Brain] about the constant state of crisis that doesn’t give people time to really reflect on the past or plan for the future because they are always in the middle of some developing crisis moment, either recovering from one that has just ended or preparing for one that’s setting in. In your book, you write that “crisis, while an event that names an epochal moment, can also be made to intertwine itself across registers binding the epochal to the everyday [p.16].”

When I read your book, Mauricio Macri had just left the presidency. The October 2019 elections were over, Alberto Fernández had assumed, and the country was once again caught in a cycle of inflation and issues of international debt, depositors’ money was to some extent trapped inside the banks and a new cepo [restrictions on foreign exchange] was in place. So, the subtitle of the book–“post-crisis Buenos Aires”–captured my attention. It shows the limitations of historical work conducted in the present moment. It’s very difficult to see into the future, especially in a place so defined by cyclical crises. So, the first question that occurred to me is this: Is there really such a thing as a “post-crisis” Argentina?

Nicholas: When I would say to people, “Oh, with the crisis,” they would say, “Which crisis?” They knew which one I meant, you know, but it was this performance of this thing that you just said, that there are many, there are so many. They can rattle off the history of these different moments of economic difficulty–hyperinflation in the late ’80s, the crisis in 2001, and of course the knowledge that there would be future crises.

I guess I would disagree with Manes’ claim that Argentines aren’t able to reflect on their situation, precisely because of the constant nature of crisis. I think there is a “post-crisis,” there are many post-crisis moments. There are also moments when that sort of epochal peak arrives, as in 2001, but between 2003 and, say, 2010, it didn’t feel like one of those moments. In 2012, the feeling returned, with the first cepo. New forms of crisis emerge, but there’s certainly time for people to reflect, and they do reflect; they tell a lot stories about past crises, and that was very interesting to me. The stories are always told with this vibe of future preparation, and as I say in the book, it’s not as if analysis of the past helps you predict the future, but it does help you hold the future open, and inspires an attitude that says, “We don’t know exactly what the future will be like, but look, we have this beautiful collection of horrific moments that we’ve lived through.” That’s what makes those stories so valuable, to think them over and consider them with an attitude to the future.

Vance: Your thought on the survival aspect of storytelling interested me as well. I hear stories about people who had bad experiences during the Rodrigazo, in the 1970s, from younger generations who saw the continued effects of those experiences as they came up, and how that changed their outlook on the future. They were able to put that awareness to good use; some got out of the corralito pretty much intact because they saw it coming and completed all of the transactions necessary to protect their savings just in time. I’ve also heard stories of people who did not because they were so invested in the present that they forgot the lessons from the past.

We could take a lesson from this here in the United States, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. I lived with my grandmother during college. She was born in 1917 and lived through the Great Depression and World War II, in which my grandfather served. She would go into a panic if she had to buy a broom or some other small item like that, because she was convinced that she wasn’t going to have the money she needed, even though, in all honesty, she was loaded.

As we move farther away from that generation, we lose that sort of historical consciousness. I think the pandemic will probably change that for a lot of us. I’m curious to see what sort of storytelling efforts will emerge from all this. I work in a library, and I’ve seen a number of archival efforts to gather and document the experiences people have had with COVID-19 in order to be able to pass them on.

Nicholas: It’s interesting to think about stories as one form of memory, and of course there are many forms. Your grandmother’s was perhaps more embodied and deeply psychological, I’m sure based on a rational story–“I’ve lived these things and they were difficult”–but it also has a traumatic aspect to it. If we take memory as an expansive category, then that kind of lived experience and the archive that your body carries with it would be another form of memory. Archives that are more formal and document based would be another. The popular stories I include in my book are yet another.

This comes out, too, in the commitments of the architects I talk about in the book, around not just crisis but also the dictatorship, and their efforts to hold present a way of thinking about architecture and their engagement with the popular classes. They didn’t really talk about it this way themselves; it took a lot of work to figure out the commitments of these architects to do architecture a certain kind of way. I had to ask myself, “What’s leftist about this sort of architecture?” I realized there were certain key moments that were really important to them, that led them to work in a way that introduces a consciousness of class, and a conversation about architecture as an elite good versus a non-elite good.  These moments formed a sort of memory about ways of doing architecture that had existed briefly in the early 1970s and then were snuffed out by dictatorial violence.

Vance: Switching gears a bit, I’d like to talk a little about the rebusque. As we go into this particular crisis here in the United States, I’m starting to see signs at supermarkets that talk about coin shortages and exact change, which makes me think back to all the odd forms of change I’ve received in Argentina: Band-Aids, candy, even a tangerine once. There is a always a shortage of change there, although in their case we’re usually talking about small bills rather than coins. When the 500 peso bill came out in 2017, for example, it complicated things because in my somewhat marginal neighborhood no one had change for them, so I had to spend them in town to get change, which I could then use closer to home.

I remember that as the current crisis began to unfold in 2016, my neighborhood started to look like the United Nations. There were flags all along the sidewalks, showing where someone had basically turned their home into a kiosco [convenience store]. They were selling the same things as their neighbors, who had also turned their homes into stores. This is a flexibility we don’t necessarily have here in the United States, due to zoning ordinances and things like that. I’m fascinated by this sort of phasing in and out of identities of a domestic space. Is this something you experienced in your research of built environments, that they can almost effortlessly go from domestic setting to commercial setting and back again?

Nicholas: There are a couple of layers to that. I definitely remember getting candy as change, and it was impossible to take the bus when I was there in 2006 because you needed exact change and no stores would give it to you because they didn’t have it either. I remember thinking, “Where is this change? Who has it? Somebody has to have it.” I bought so many things in order to get change for the bus, and sometimes I’d end up with candy anyway. It was like a foiled effort to get money to do its job, and it was unfathomable to me that nobody had solved this problem.

Regarding people who convert their homes into kioscos, I’ve heard stories, although I don’t recall witnessing it myself. I do have a lot of stories about people figuring out ways to make money with what they’ve got. People bake things and sell them; if you go to an Argentine park where there are a lot of people, you can expect someone to come by with a basket of items for sale, empanadas or something like that. I’m starting to see activities like that here in the U.S. Cartoneros, of course, were a huge figure in Argentina in the late ’90s, and still are; here we have people who collect recycling for resale. This is something you see in New York all the time, since we have can and bottle deposits that can be collected upon trade-in. That sort of activity is part of the informal social architecture of cities; it’s something you see that changes your consciousness. I think that’s the sort of thing we’re seeing a lot of now, as people try to figure out how to make ends meet by means of informal labor, just like someone who opens a kiosco in their home.

As far as more formal architecture is concerned, it’s an interesting question. I live in New York; commercial rents have plummeted, a lot of stores are closing up. There has been a lot of research done on “luxury blight,” the phenomenon of unrented storefronts in expensive neighborhoods due to landlords’ unwillingness to lower rents and miss out on tax abatements based on lost rent. Lower rent means less money at tax time. We have yet to see the long-term effects of those things. There’s also the issue of “Airbnb-ification”: whole buildings dedicated to temporary rentals, which have also changed the landscape of housing in the city. I’m sure the super-rich aren’t the only ones doing these things; there are also people with just enough money to invest in creative ways that may generate income.

Vance: One of the reasons I connected with your book so quickly was the story you told in the introduction about Mariela and her efforts to purchase an apartment, how she and her sons strapped the cash to their bodies under their clothes, hoping to reach the bank without running afoul of the motochorros [muggers on motorcycles]. I haven’t purchased a home in Argentina, but I have sold one, and I too, after the papers were signed, had to strap a ton of cash to myself beneath my coat and book it through a crowded city center to the bank before it closed for the weekend, so that I could fly out of the country the next day.

We think of homes here in the United States largely as a short-term investment: we buy it, we stay in it long enough to build up some equity, then sell it at a profit in order to move on to a bigger home. This is definitely not the case in Argentina. For one thing, home loans are not really an option, unless you’re just filthy rich, so if you’re going to buy a house you have to save up the full amount beforehand and set it down in a chunk on the realtor’s table. That is much more of a long-term investment, in that it takes a lot more work to get to the table at all, and in that selling isn’t nearly as attractive an idea, since once it’s gone you don’t know what if anything you’ll find to replace it. There isn’t much scope for trading upward since your next purchase can’t really exceed the cash amount you got from the sale.

Another one of my new favorite books is Historia del dinero [The Story of Money], by Alan Pauls, which you mentioned in your own book. You use the protagonist’s purchase of an apartment and the time and money spent on renovations, and how that process intersected with successive economic crises along the way. The apartment basically turned into a money pit, which he ended up selling at a loss soon after work was finished. Real estate is such a tenuous, and yet such an important part, of Argentine life and the Argentine imaginary: I was once told that as long as you have a roof over your head, you can get by. Governments come and go, inflation comes and goes, but as long as those bricks are there, you’re safe.

What is the biggest difference you saw between the perception of real estate and the built environment in Argentina and the same perceptions here in the U.S., and what lessons do you think we can learn from this?

Nicholas: In terms of contrasts, I think what you said is right: in Argentina, these things are thought of as a good that has a monetary, or market, value, but people don’t typically think of their homes exclusively in those terms. It’s not thought of as a short-term investment. It’s thought of as a home, in a much more substantive way. We have that here, too, to an extent, but certain phenomena like subdevelopments with much more comparable or fungible homes, where one is very similar to the others and you could move three blocks away to an identical unit, which I think is much more common here, probably tend to erode that sense of deep connection. I’m sure it allows for other sorts of connection; it’s not like Americans don’t care about their houses or don’t have affective attachments to them, but there is definitely that contrast there.

I think that maybe poses a question I would be interested in, then, in terms of the United States: what does “home” mean to people, how do they think about it, and where does the value of a house lie? Maybe what we would find is that it really is just an economic proposition: where can I live and send my kids to a good school, or to not have a long commute. But I suspect it would be more complicated than just that. Also, when we think about the translation of this question from Argentina to the U.S., it is a problem because there are so many important differences. Argentina, for example, doesn’t have a functioning mortgage market, so what it means to buy a house is very different.

Vance: When I bought my first home here in the U.S., everybody kept talking to me about “starter homes.” Also, when I bought my first home, I didn’t really buy anything; I basically paid rent to the bank for the seven years I lived there. This is a big difference, in that the act of purchase in Argentine is a wholesale act; you take the money with you, and it becomes your house and no one else’s. It may not be complete; you may have to add on two-thirds of the house after buying it, but it is yours with a capital “Y.”

Here, if I lose my job, I lose my home, because I don’t have the income to keep up the mortgage, whereas in Argentina, if you lose your job, that home becomes your refuge and base of operations and you make it into whatever you need it to be in order to weather the crisis.

Nicholas: We also have different geographies of movement; people move around here, and farther from their extended families, much more easily than in Argentina.

Vance: I remember a conversation I had with a friend in Argentina about that. I was driving from Texas to Missouri to see some old college friends–about a nine and a half to ten hour trip–and it was this unheard of distance to him. Then I remember making a trip from my home to Buenos Aires, which is half the distance and requires half the time, and it was still logistically more difficult than my car trip in the United States. So, the mobility issue is definitely important.

One last question: I mentioned Facundo Manes’ book, and there is also a book by Carlos Nino, titled Un país al margen de la ley [A Country Outside the Law]–there are any number of academic or journalistic books about the Argentine dilemma, really, that are very good, the theory is great, and I think they’re spot on in a lot of ways. One of my favorite quotes from the Manes book has to do with the infamous viveza criolla [a sort of native common sense], which the author describes as an “intelligence with short legs.” I think that’s probably a fair description. However, I’ve noticed in my conversations with the people with boots on the ground, so to speak, who have actually lived through all of the nastiness and have had to adjust their lifestyles and actions accordingly, that there is a very large difference of perception regarding this so-called dilemma. I’m convinced it isn’t a lack of understanding on the part of the average Argentine. I think they’re very aware of the way things work, or else they wouldn’t survive. It seems to be a difference not just in the approach to solving the problem, but in the perception of whether or not there’s even a problem to be solved. Here we return to the multiple black markets and the practice of giving candy as change, and the attempt to make money do what it’s supposed to do. I think they’ve pretty much given up on what money is supposed to do, so they’re making it do what it has to do.

As I watch what’s happening here as we move through this pandemic period, I see us becoming in some ways more flexible, or adaptive, in the ways we solve our daily problems. I see signs around town outside houses, people who are sewing masks and selling them out of their homes, which is exactly what happens in Argentina when a crisis kicks in: people sew socks and sell them door to door, or they bake bread or make milanesas. Or they put a kiosco in their home and sell things through their front window.

The perception here, I think, generally is that when the politicians stop working for us, that puts us against the wall and we have no outlet, but what I see in Argentina, where it’s been years since most people have been really invested in the political process on a macro level, is that not only are people still getting by, but that in some ways that divorce between the macro and micro levels of government has created a vacuum which allows the popular form of politics greater room for expression. I’m thinking here also of Queremos Buenos Aires and other grassroots groups you talked about in the book, as well as things I saw when I was there. What do you think about this?

Nicholas: There’s a whole cottage industry of publications about Argentine economic woes that places the blame on the Argentines themselves, the viveza criolla, a sort of cunning that’s also selfish, that isn’t capable of forming collective projects which might improve the national situation. That’s a trope; it’s something you can read a lot of books about. It’s also a common belief among people in Argentina; the reason those books exist is because it’s an idea the people connect with. I always had a very different take on it, which is similar to what you were saying, that people are actually very smart and are doing what they have to do to get by.

You can blame the situation on poor economic decision-making by the government, as well, but the truth is that most economies that exist in the shadow of the United States and Europe are not doing well, or do well only in fits and bursts–they are not stable. There’s something about thinking of a world capitalist system that’s really important to thinking about the position of Argentina in that world. That, I think, is why so much attention is paid, say in the films of Pino Solanas, to this idea that, yes, the Argentine government is corrupt and that’s a bad thing, but that corruption is also due in part to the influence of multinational corporations, because of international banking systems and the role of global banks. Argentina is situated in a system of power, and no matter who you vote for, it’s not clear that they’re going to be able to fix that. There are different ways of approaching the problem, which might have different impacts, but the problem itself remains.

Regarding Argentina, I do think some people are a little more short-sighted, who think in terms of this government or that government, but I think it is easier to meet Argentines who are aware of the larger systemic issues than it is to meet Americans who are aware of them. People who have a perspective on Marxism are much more common in Argentina than in the United States; in the United States, people will say that they hate it, but they don’t really even know what it is. If you went to university in Argentina, you’ve had a close encounter with Marxism and probably a lot of friends who are Marxists.

Vance: Things swing back and forth so much; one thing about Argentine economic history is that there doesn’t appear to be a middle way. You’re either completely isolationist, or you’re completely open, and it changes almost with every new administration. If you are over the age of fifteen, you’ve been in one or the other of those situations, so when you talk about socialism or Marxism–or any other “ism”–it’s very likely that you’ve experienced it personally to some extent. Here, it’s all theoretical, as you pointed out; most people don’t know what the difference is between socialism, Marxism, or communism. In Argentina, it’s a lived experience.

You reminded me of one of the greatest summations of what it is to be Argentine that I’ve ever heard. I was once told that the good thing about Argentina is that you’re always starting over. If that is not a way to make the sour grapes sweet, I don’t know what is. But it’s true: every time a new face shows up in the Casa Rosada, every time a new economic tack is taken, everybody starts again. Whether it be a new cepo, or inflation, or defaulting on a debt, something throws everything out of whack. That is an experience that I think we here in the U.S. have not really had. I’m still paying today for a gallon of milk what I was paying in college, give or take a few cents. Gas prices go up and down constantly, but still within a fairly established margin depending on where one is in the country.

This is what interests me about the time we’re going through right now. I just read an article about the ways in which COVID-19 has changed our economy, and that it’s probably not going back to the way it was before. Businesses are focusing on connectivity because we’ve gone remote and will probably stay that way to some degree; the educational system has changed because the things we need to know and the ways we need to learn them have changed; we can’t even shake hands anymore. We’ve been dealing with COVID-19 for a little over a year, and we’re coming apart at the seams. I think there are lessons we can learn from the flexibility that I saw in Argentina, because I think you’re right, I think people there are extremely intelligent in the ways that matter to them. When I say the ways that matter to them, I’m not saying it’s better or worse, it’s just that they’re in a very different situation and have been for years. This ability to think on their feet–and through their stories–and to survive could teach us a great deal, if we’re willing to listen.

©2021 – Vance Woods

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