Degeneration and the Obscene: Elite Views, Medical Views, and the Culture of the Urban Poor in Buenos Aires c. 1900

Sunday, January 5, 2014: 11:00 AM
Cabinet Room (Omni Shoreham)
Pablo E. Ben, University of Northern Iowa
In this paper I will discuss the way in which professionals, state officials and physicians defined sexual degeneration and the obscene in Buenos Aires in the early twentieth century and how those views run counter to the way in which the urban poor perceived reality. Contrasting the view from elites, "scientific" corporations and the state, I will consider the notion of "sin" among the poor. Rather than following the doctrine of the Catholic Church, the urban poor in Buenos Aires embraced a dynamic notion of sin that did not always condemn sexual morality but rather approached the issue through the lenses of comedy. The term "sin" became a catchword to define sexual activities of all sorts. In the context of this presentation I will consider how the reshaping of urban space and the problems associated to a lack of labor discipline shaped a specific form of popular culture among the urban poor. My goal is to argue that at least until the 1930s the urban poor did not agree with notions like that of degeneracy, pathology or other medicalizing terms that marginalized alternative forms of sexuality. Instead, all sexual practices were identified as sinful but at the same time portrayed as events of life that were bound to happen to everyone and about which people could only react through laughter. In analyzing the cultural views of the urban poor I will present a comparison between Buenos Aires and other cities of the world.
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