l'Amérique réversible

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Cowboys, clowns and Bullfighters
A Reversible America

Frédéric Saumade (Anthropologist. Aix-Marseilles University)
Jean-Baptiste Maudet (Geographer. University of Pau)

California is the region of the world that has the most diverse kinds of spectacles involving bulls, principally rodeos and bloodless bullfighting. Such a surprising discovery, one of the few about this famous state that had never been studied by scholars, may be attributed to California’s geographical and cultural proximity to Mexico and its bullfighting culture, despite the banning of the latter in the United States from 1848 onwards. Previous historical approaches to the American rodeo have already demonstrated the Spanish-Mexican origins of this American sport.  Thus, the California spectacles must be considered descendant of the Spanish open range cattle ranching and bullfighting cultures that originally spread from Central Mexico to the American Southwest. The amazing preeminence of California in the matter of rodeo and bull games is also due to the presence of different communities – WASP, Mexican, Afro-American, Portuguese-Americans and even Gay – which take pride and reinforce their identity through these spectacular activities, in the face of the ever stronger animal rights movement.
The substance of this book is based upon comparative fieldwork, carried out between 2009 and 2011, set among rodeo grounds, bullrings and cattle ranches, as well as geographic analysis delineating the spatial dimensions of the establishment of this social phenomenon in California. Using comparative ethnography, the authors demonstrate the hidden logic of rodeos and other types of bull games, as revealed through a system of social interactions, as well as diverse techniques of bull breeding and cattle ranching associated with these games. Further, following a historical perspective, the book highlights the cross-cultural genesis of a southwestern “bull games complex” that embraces Anglo cowboy and Hispano bullfighter through the mediation of the clown. A typical character of the American circus and burlesque tradition, the clown finds his place in the rodeo spectacle where he is transformed into the so-called “bullfighter”.
The bull games complex has indeed found its “promised land” in California, where it is enacted mainly among sub-cultures that have been marginalized by mainstream America. These marginalized groups include Latin Americans, Native Americans, African Americans and those who identify as queer. The consideration of these sub-cultures gives a key to understanding the complexity of territorial borders and, most generally, to the paradoxes inherent in an American civilization that has been fueled by marked cultural differentiation. A sociological perspective based on an original fieldwork reveals a system of interactions that links the different communities involved: relations of rivalry and collaboration, as observed throughout the entirety of the Californian landscape, stretching from the Sierra Nevada foothills to the coast, from North to South, from the countryside to large cities.  In this immense territory White, Black and Indian cowboys, Portuguese-American fighting bull breeders, WASP bucking bull breeders, and Mexican charros and jaripeo aficionados are all placed in contact with one another. As this book demonstrates, the rodeo and Western culture in general constitute a far more complex cultural pattern than is generally supposed.  This study of games involving bulls shows that the West was born from the melting of previously antagonistic cultures: Mexican, Indian, Black and White people who rounded up cattle on horseback. Meanwhile, beyond their own particularity, the communities that are considered in this book share a common fascination for both the bull in the arena and the American flag; their ethnic-cultural claim always involves pride in being American citizens.
The paradoxes highlighted by this research open the way to a more general statement about the strange dynamics of American civilization, which allows the rise and renaissance of marginal forces of peoples previously scorned. The most striking effect of this social amalgamation is the weird tendency of the American spectacle to emphasize the “glorious defeat” and the “beauty of the catastrophe” that still threatens a people driven by “Manifest destiny”. This kind of “neurotic obsession for loss”, among a nation of “winners”, springs regularly in the core of the great American spectacle, from the image of General Custer’s last stand and Redskins’ triumph to the fall, replayed from one rodeo to another, of the champion bull rider. A real American emblem, the bull rider—the most economically profitable of the protagonists in these games--could be considered a master in “art of the catastrophe” as he is violently shaken and finally bucked off by a ferocious animal, a brave bull. In the end, the heroic cowboy owes his salvation in the bullring to a clownish bullfighter that evokes irresistibly the return of the Spanish enemy to the Western frontier, that is to say: a reversible America. As it turns out, this book goes far beyond the restricted area of the Western folklore; it proposes an original approach to the study of the California borderland and the tensions between mainstream and marginal influences that have shaped and that still shape the American culture.

Book’s characteristics and economical opportunities
343 p. including original photographs and maps.
1st release in France: March 2014 (ed. Berg International, Paris)






©2014-2016 — Responsables d'édition : Jean-Baptiste MAUDET et Frédéric SAUMADE
Conception - Réalisation Laboratoire PASSAGES-CNRS et UPPA