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Poststructural Sand Castles in Latin Americal Postcolonial Theory Today By Frederick Luis Aldama
We can safely say that postcolonial and poststructural theory continues to have a huge impact on Latin American and U.S. multicultural studies today. The question is, does the cross-pollination of theory help understand our contemporary multicultural reality of the Americas more deeply? In partial response to this question, I explore variously the following critics and their recent contributions to the field of Latin American and U.S. multicultural scholarship: Doris Sommer's Proceed with Caution, When Engaged by Minority Writing in the Americas (1999); Walter Mignolo's Local Histories/Global Designs: Coloniality, Subaltern Knowledges, and Border Thinking (2000); Román De la Campa's Latin Americanism (1999); Paula Moya and Michael Hames-García's Reclaiming Identity: Realist Theory and the Predicament of Postmodernism (2000); and Cathy L. Jrade's Modernismo, Modernity, and the Development of Spanish American Literature.
In Proceed with Caution Doris Sommer explores a variety of writers over a long stretch of time: from Whitman to Cortázar, from 16th Century El Inca Grailaso de la Vega to Vargas Llosa, from Rigoberta Menchú to Toni Morrison. Here she carves out a transnational frame for approaching the literature of the Americas while simultaneously paying attention to a given text's specific location within history and the social polity. In this fashion, her ultimate goal is to formulate a theoretical approach that contributes, in her words, "toward a rhetoric of particularism" (x). To this end, then, Sommer's analytic frame sets out to situate the social and historical locus of enunciation of "minor texts" to show how such texts incorporate rhetorical structures that prevent their mastery by outsiders. (She identifies the intended readers of these texts not as "co-conspirators or allies in a shared culture" (9), but Western outsiders who seek to turn the "minority" subjects into the fetishized object of a conquering gaze.) Thus with respect to Rigoberta Menchú's testimonio, Sommer's says she is "being coy on the witness stand, exercising control over apparently irrelevant information, perhaps to produce her own strategic version of truth" (115). In this case, as in others such as Toni Morrison's Beloved and Walt Whitman, to name a few, the non-Guatemalan, Western outsider is the target of that traditionally identified as the silent, Third World Other. Sommer demonstrates how Menchú skillfully provides information and then elides with strategically placed silences. She engages the reader "without surrendering herself" (4). Menchú fends off the totalizing impulse of the ethnographic Western reader who would otherwise mistake the individual--Rigoberta Menchú--as a voice that speaks to the truths of her people and Latin America generally.
Sommer similarly uncovers the particular rhetorical strategy Mario Vargas Llosa used in The Storyteller/El Hablador to reveal how the author "stages" the movement in and out of the "slippery space" of language and identity to destablize the meeting of mestizo and Jewish bodies and texts in Latin America (269). Also Whitman's Leaves of Grass is more than a text that has become part of the aesthetic patrimony of Latin America (via its multiple translations, notably one by Jorge Luis Borges). It is an example of the creation of an "aesthetics of liberal democracy" (39) by a poet. Leaves of Grass provided an antidote against divisive particularities and inequalities not with words but within the "gaps that Whitman left between the fragments" (39). Sommer's reading of the more contemporary Robert Young's film adaptation, The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, exemplifies how a text can perform a "pattern of refusals" inscribed in a racist, Tejano justice system (97). Editing techniques of fragmentation and elision set the "trap for its Anglo viewers and eludes their efforts to grasp its meaning until the end" (98).
For Sommer, how these texts perform their narrative--controlling the ebb and flow of information through narrative fragmentation, use of parodic narrative technique, and blur of the border between genres--becomes the degree to which they fend off and/or "sting" a reader's desire to master the Third World subject as Other (8). For example, the violent movement back and forth of forced "forgetfulness" in Toni Morrison's Beloved becomes an act of staging the "confrontation of intimacy versus information" (161) as well as drawing attention to her uneasy juxtaposition of the "chronicle, personal confessions, slave narratives" (161). Morrison's text, then, not only prevents the reader from complete textual mastery, but performs a history of forced silence on African Americans. Sommer's readings aim to highlight how Menchú, Morrison, Whitman, Vargas Llosa, and Young--to name a few of her "resistant authors"--deliberately disrupt the outsiders' desire to conquer and master meaning. Sommer's minority texts, then, formally empower those kept at the textual, social, and political margins.
In Local Histories/Global Designs: Coloniality, Subaltern Knowledges, and Border Thinking Walter Mignolo similarly seeks to trace the particulars of localized knowledge and enunciating text acts. Mignolo interviews people in Latin America from Taxi drivers to writers and politicians, for example to show that transitional alliances and connections can be built to transcend the shortcomings of nationalist rhetoric all while being located in the local and specific interests of the people: the Zapatistas being a case in point. Mignolo reads across a variety of disciplines--history, culture, and politics--as they crisscross at different moments in time and geographic space (pre- and post colonial as well as modern and postmodern) and crystallize into what he identifies as the "subalternization of knowledge." Subalternization of knowledge is the system of understanding self and world as conceived from a resistant place. In other words, while the West imposed on the native of the Americas a knowledge system that worked in favor of colonialism and later imperialism, these imposed ways of being and self-reflecting were not digested and internalized sans résistance. Contact "from the exterior borders of the modern/colonial world system" led to a transcultural, subalternized knowledge system articulated from within those spaces traditionally marginalized and identified as Other. Key to this formulation is the idea, not so unlike Sommer's, of the double voiced articulation. In Latin America, Mignolo remarks, "every act of saying is at the same time a 'saying against' and a 'saying for'" (25). Subalternization of knowledge results from contact and transculturation of nativist and Western systems. Identifying a text's double voiced articulation allows one to locate in the specific text-act how subalternization of knowledge exists at the "intersection of local histories and global designs, and at the intersection of hegemonic and subaltern grounds and undergrounds" (25).
Like Sommer, Mignolo sets up his project against poststructuralist theory. Both see the poststructuralist theorists as using the Third World subject and text as a static object that articulates a theoretical difference at a distant remove from the local social, political, and cultural discourses that shape individual Latin American bodies and texts. Mignolo seeks to infuse the local back into the global by formulating a theory of Latin Americanism that arises from outside the "borders of the system" (Mignolo 315). Subalternization of knowledge (identified as the "colonial epistemic difference") spins out of the local and, as Mignolo amplifies, "emerges in the exteriority of the modern/colonial world" (315) Indeed, new ways of localized enunciating and thinking could only be obtained through a localized reading of the responses--"the colonial epistemic difference"--to historical, political, and social circumstances that mark the Latino/a and Chicano/a body.
Globalization is a contemporary incarnation of colonialism. Just as history has proved that the West turned to the Americas for raw materials and labor exploitation, globalization--in the form not only of capital but also of poststructural theory in the academy--seeks to suck the life out of "local histories" (ix). Seen from this angle, such a poststructural theory is clearly obsolete. Mignolo addresses the characterization of the West-as-center and the Third-World-as-periphery, emphasizing the point that in today's world where the peripheries are now in the centers (Third World subjects inhabit First World centers), the local space is not to be found only across bodies of water. The erstwhile Western centers are filled with bodies and texts traditionally identified as inhabiting the geopolitical margins. Subalternization of knowledge is the process of adapting, rejecting, integrating, and confronting "two kinds of local histories displayed in different spaces and times across the planet" to produce what he calls the "coloniality of power"(ix).
In his formulation of the local/global subalternization of knowledge, Mignolo turns to the example of language. He celebrates the multiply voiced linguistic act--Caribbean creole and Chicano/a caló, for example, that are examples of a localized celebration of the impure (tainted English, French, or Spanish) perspective that speaks to a subalternized epistemology. The three languages (English, Spanish, Nahuatl) Chicana Gloria Anzaldúa uses in her book Borderlands/ La Frontera: The New Mestiza is an example of what Mignolo identifies as a "new way of languaging" (228) that celebrate worldviews suppressed by monolingual ideologies. Nahuatl takes center stage and is no longer a displaced language; similarly, Spanish is no longer "displaced by the increasing hegemony of the colonial languages of the modern period (English, German, and French)" (237). Jamaican writer Michelle Cliff further exemplifies how such "polylanguaging" threatens to disrupt essential cultural codes of national identity based on artificially imposed narratives of pure (French) language. Cliff's creole comes out of the knowledge system that deliberately anchored language and identity to territory but as attuned to a localized history and culture that results from contact. In this way, then, the act of speaking creole is linked to Créolité--that knowledge system defined "by a mode of being rather than by a way of looking" (242). Thinking and writing in a subaltern language like creole is an expression of being and not a theoretical construct. Polylanguaging is an act of mapping, producing, and distributing a local, subaltern knowledge system. Cliff's creole or Anzaldúa's plurilanguaging, then, are acts of "changing linguistic cartographies [and] implies a reordering of epistemology" (247). Thus, by speaking in multiple registers Cliff and Anzaldúa denaturalize the tie "between language and territories" (229) that traditionally oppress the subaltern subject. Moreover, their celebration of the linguistic fractures become texts with the power to transform everyday political and social practices as margins re-form centers of empire. Mignolo contends, finally, that "the idea of national languaging and, indirectly, of national literacies and literatures in Europe as well as in the Unites States" (236) is being challenged by today's migratory movements towards those areas. This leads to a new way of thinking about how "linguistic maps, literary geographies, and cultural landscapes are being repainted" (236).
In Latin Americanism Román De la Campa expresses a like interest in identifying the local articulations of Latin American knowledge and its power to transform the cultural, social, economic, and political reality. In his formulation of a Latin Americanism, De la Campa also puts poststructuralist theory at arms length--"a paradigm committed to showing the artifice implicit in all historical constructs" (122)--deeply questioning its application to understanding Latin American studies. For De la Campa, poststructural theory acts to erase local difference in Latin America, displacing the Latin American text, body, and subject to an obscure exegetical never-never land, and grants Western theorists like Paul de Man or Jacques Derrida credit for theories already articulated by the likes of a Jorge Luis Borges.
Not surprisingly, given the language De la Campa uses (one of "ludic uncertainty") and his assertions, in spite of his view of poststructuralist theory as having "reached a point of exhaustion" (vii), he nonetheless does acknowledge its impact on his and other Latin Americanist theory. He doesn't wish to turn literary deconstruction into, what he calls, "a bête noir" (viii). He wants to identify its "blind spots within Latin Americanism" (viii). To this end, De la Campa explores not only Borges, but other Latin American "native" figures such as Sandino, Cortázar, and Che Guevara and others whose texts are "unprotected by literary and political canons" and allow him to develop an analytic frame for a wide-ranging, and in his words, "hopefully freer, sense of textual historicity" (ix). Each of these author's "unprotected" texts highlights the "production and articulation of Latin America as a constellation of discursive constructs" (viii). Like the texts authored by the figures he references in his work (Spivak, Benítez-Rojo, Bhabha, Judith Butler to name a few), language (its figures of speech, construction, mode, etc.) ultimately translates into how one relates to the world and how the world is related to one. But if reality is a text, then as De la Campa proposes, language can also be considered to be a "rhetorical praxis and agency" (vii). From this standpoint, for De la Campa Borges's uniqueness as a writer "is his Latin American provenance, a historical sense of political and intellectual liminality not devoid of a sense of epistemic violence that is now observed on a global scale" (34). Moreover, Borges's revolutionizing of "cerebral essays and detective narratives riddled with epistemological twists filled with their own sense of violence" ultimately speaks not to his uniqueness as an individual, but to his experience of the deeper contradictions that inform a Latin American culture "so laden with ludic uncertainty" (35).
De la Campa investigates Latin American writers and theorists (including Caribbeanists Glissant and Benítez-Rojo) alike whose text-acts reach beyond their formal boundaries to transform their everyday reality. On one occasion, he celebrates the Latin American critic Angel Rama's posthumously published The Lettered City (trans. 1996) as a text that addresses "a broad spectrum of cultural and social articulations" (121). Rama turns to themes and techniques seen in modernista poetry and later in more contemporaneous novels that rupture master narratives--constituting epistemic breaks--and destablize one's understanding of structures that naturalize hierarchies of difference in colonial relations. With a similar energy, he turns to an analysis of how the Sandinista revolution was the result of reading not Darío as an apolitical aesthete but as a political icon (40). Also, examining Julio Cortázar's fragmented, episodic factual/fictional "Apocalypse at Solentiname" , he concludes that this is an "experiment to bring revolution to the world of art" (46). Cortázar's text epitomizes the Latin American resistant text through its "self-reflexive fusion of technological novelty, Sandinista spiritualism, and his own memory of politically motivated violence in Latin American liberation movements" (50). On another occasion, De la Campa identifies Che Guevara's body as a text that literally acquired political meaning that led to revolutionary transformation as it was moved from Bolivia to Cuba (36). In so doing, De la Campa locates the text within the interplay of political and economic intersections that, he writes, "deconstruction generally dissolves or invalidates" (40). So for De la Campa textual production and the subsequent transformation of reality doesn't have to take the form only of writing and reading: the dissemination of resistant knowledge can take many forms. Finally, De la Campa uses these as examples of texts where the "uncertain interplay" (vii) between aesthetics and epistemology (what he calls "episthetics") intersect in Latin America to inform and incite everyday revolution and transformation.
Paula M.L. Moya and Michael R. Hames-García's volume of edited essays, entitled Reclaiming Identity: Realist Theory and the Predicament of Postmodernism, uses Satya P. Mohanty's postpositivist realist theory as a springboard to reclaim identity as both real (essential characterizations) and constructed (series of signifiers that assign meaning to bodies). (See the initial formulation of this theory in Mohanty's, "The Epistemic Status of Cultural Identity: On Beloved and the Postcolonial Condition," in Cultural Critique vol. 24, 1993: 41-80.) The essays in this volume hail from a range of disciplines--literary criticism, philosophy, psychoanalysis, and the social sciences--and examine a range of texts that include Toni Morrison's Beloved, Cherríe Moraga's Loving in the War Years, and Joy Kogawa's Obasan to name a few.
The postpositivist realists aim to couple a deconstructionist and an essentialist mode of understanding identity in the Americas (mostly North) as both unique to localized social, economic, gendered forces and with the possibility of reaching beyond the local. For example, according to the theorists of postpositivist realism, there can be an essential, say, woman identity; thus, an individual experiences the world according to her/his perception of herself/himself and his/her interaction with a world where opportunities and resources are distributed according to his/her being identified as a type: black, white, brown and either woman or man. At the same time, while Moya and the other authors in this volume believe that identity determines how we experience the world in specific ways (hence their critical stance toward poststructuralist theory that proposes the indeterminacy of identity), they are also careful to declare that they are "not naive empiricists" (2). So while they posit a localized experience of the social, political, and so on, they believe that knowledge of reality is not objective; like the poststructuralists, they too believe that all observation and knowledge--and therefore reality--is mediated. For example, in "Who's Afraid of Identity Politics" Linda Martín Alcoff does not want "to deny the constitutive impact of theory and social context on truth" (315), and at the same time she recognizes that "ontologies can be thought of as models of reality useful in science (or in social theory) that approximate the world as it is, thus capturing some truth about it. . ." (316). And Michael R. Hames-García analyzes how Michael Nava's protagonist Henry Rios in The Hidden Law can both identify gay and, because of his identification as Chicano, simultaneously feel "solidarity and connection with the homophobic Chicano characters" (105). Postpositivist realism for Hames-García allows him to read Rios's identification sexually and racially as both "expanding one another and mutually constituting one another's meaning" (106) and as identifications that have very real consequences. Henry Rios's identity as a lawyer/detective, after all leads to real "consequences not only for himself and others like him but also for others who are straight and/or not Chicano" (114), Hames-García concludes.
Postpositivist realist theorists create a frame that identifies an essentialized identity (self perception and perception of self by others) in the world--but a world filled with mediated knowledge. However, this is not simply a replaying of what Gayatri Spivak has termed "strategic essentialism". Unlike Spivak's model, according to postpostivist realist Linda Martin Alcoff, the new theory does not divide and distance the "'knowing' theorist [from the] 'unknowing' activists who continue to believe in identity" (323). This is a consequence of postpositivist realism being generated from the ground up, from the 'real' people, and not from the top down, from the theorists. Moya, Hames-García, Alcoff et al aim to speak directly from the real and not the abstract subject to maintain a direct connection with and affirmation of their socially active base (Chicanos, Women, African Americans etc.).
Cathy L. Jrade's Modernismo, Modernity, and the Development of Spanish American Literature is concerned with identifying and drawing out the specific dynamics--social, racial, political--of a localized moment in Latin American cultural history. Jrade anchors her local versus global dialectical understanding of identity and the text-act to a theory about Latin American modernismo (unlike European modernism) as a movement concerned--both in content and in form--with the social, cultural, and political. She reads a number of early modernistas, like Mexico's Manuel Gutiérrez Nájera whose erotic poetic themes of beauty, goodness, and truth Jrade interprets as "the fight for freedom and for the privilege of envisioning realities beyond those of established political and poetic structures and modes" (29). She explores at length modernitstas like Nicaraguan Ruben Darío, who radically altered meter and verse to highlight a supernatural coherence that would provide refuge from a chaos-filled, modernizing everyday life. To expand the modernista group, she includes Peru's José María Eguren, Argentina's Leopoldo Lugones, and Cuba's José Martí. Jrade considers that Martí's interest in establishing an identity as a writer wishing to possess the power to change the material conditions of the people in the face of alienating modern technology and capitalist materialism as an early modernista move. She writes, "Martí tied socioeconomic and literary factors together and proposed not only a truer way of knowing but also an antidote to the excesses of modernization and North American hegemony" (25). For Jrade, membership in the modernista group meant a common intellectual search to safeguard their world against marauding nascent imperialist forces. The creative act was the political act.
For the modernistas, poetry in particular heightened the political and social consciousness of the people and ultimately affirmed nativist Latin American values because they saw it as a heightened form of knowledge. But, as Jrade shows, "modernismo's optimistic worldview, formulated under the syncretic influence of the occult sciences and based upon ancient beliefs in the harmony of the universe, no longer appears viable" (136) after the early twenties.
After the modernistas had a good forty-year run (1870s till the 1920s) the movement fizzled out when the overwhelming sense set in that poets and artists were no match for an industrial modernization that violently ripped apart everyday reality (World War I a case in point). In the face of unfavorable odds and a sense of utter powerlessness, the modernista intellectuals and artists turned to occultist and esoteric worldviews as a way to combat "the hegemony of the scientific and economic in modern life" (3). All or most of them turned to occultist sects like the Theosophical Society and the Rosicurcians, and embraced beliefs such as cabalism, astrology, magnetism, hypnotism, gnosticism, alchemy and several Asian-based religions. This wasn't unique to the modernistas. As Jrade delineates, other periods of economic tectonic shift have resulted in a similar look to the esoteric for answers: The English and German romantics of yesteryear, for example. And, as Jrade begins to suggest, we see this trend with today's poststructuralists who turn to highly abstract theories of the subject and reality, both considered social constructs and forever undetermined because mediated through language. In the face of today's rapid and rabid economic globalization that gives rise to a deep sense of powerlessness and alienation, it would seem that the poststructural theories are similarly turning to what could be identified as a postmodern version of the esoteric and irrational.
It is a recurrently observed phenomenon that, when society is confronted with deep, rapid transformations, there is a widespread replacement of reason and science with irrational thought. Mysticism and esoteric belief systems are packaged as methods for people to master reality. Today, the postmodern brands of Latin American studies and U.S. multiculturalism as well as postcolonial theory generally, have taken up this role. Theory becomes a substitute for actual political activism and is packaged as empowerment to the public. Such and such a public is expected to use such and such theory (one among the many constantly cranked out by academia) as a means to break from the prison house of language, surmount the master narratives, and revolutionize all spheres of life under capitalism that restrict being in the world. Mignolo, Sommer, De la Campa, Moya, Hames-García, et al seek empowerment in a radically changing reality. Similar to the Latin American modernistas, who no longer trusted grand narratives and understood reality as a series of intersecting correspondences between discourses that worked to maintain the status quo, these theorists seek to destablize the text in order to empower the people and alter reality. However, not so unlike the modernistas who were critical of European and American technology and bourgeois materialism and yet relied on their presence to have their books printed and sold, to travel and to make the acquaintance of other intellectuals, artists, and people of influence, these theorists are filled with deep contradictions. The modernistas fragmented poetic form to shock and revolutionize social hierarchy yet many served as ambassadors in European capitals, set their sights on intellectual life in such urban imperialist centers, and were attuned to the latest in the European dandy look (Darío had a particularly strong penchant for Parisian sartorial wear). All this while using medieval beliefs such as occultism to fend off change and thus actually whistling to the tune of ideological conservatism. Postcolonial Latin American studies share the same contradictory bind: their authors promote theories aimed at radically altering a capitalist reality, yet they materially rely on a huge industry based materially and ideologically in that reality to promote their theory.
Theory has appeared in many guises since the ebb of structuralism, changing with every whimsical whirl of intellectual fashion. But, generally speaking, for theory to appear as having the power to alter social conditions, the world must be a text and the text the world. For Mignolo, De la Campa, Sommer, Moya, Hames-García et al the text-act in the form of literature is a living social text akin to a political and historical document. Their theory aims inter alia to show how literary and other texts advance or hinder a critique of racial, gendered, sexual power relations. For Sommer, it is her identification of "minor" texts and their detainment of the reader "at the boundary between contact and conquest" (ix) that becomes an act of political mobilization. Here, for instance, Whitman's fragmented poetics promises to deliver "America, citizen by (free) citizen, like an infinite machine of (equal) interchangeable parts." (60). Whitman's Leaves of Grass is invested with the powers of a political machine, a political party rallying millions of people in the cause of equality and democracy. When De la Campa writes, the "articulation of Latin America as a constellation of discursive constructs" (viii), the world is a text, and textual analysis is political praxis. Theorists agree that deconstructive theory erases the local textual designs and subalternized knowledges present in Latin America. (The storytelling form of magical realism epitomizes this erasing of difference. Postcolonial theorists criticize poststructuralists for identifying magical realism as paradigmatic--what counts as ethnically authentic--of Third World literary production and epistemology. See Spivak's essay, "Postructuralism, Marginality, Postcoloniality, and Value," in Literary Theory Today. Ed. Peter Collier, 1990). Therefore, they have sought to carve paths that acknowledge, as De la Campa writes, the "local in the global; the here, the there, and the in-between loci of enunciation" (ix). However, ultimately they believe that the text is a "rhetorical praxis" that can transform reality (vii). Hence, it comes as no surprise that De la Campa identifies the Sandinista revolutionary spirit as spinning from the moment when the Sandinistas and the Nicaraguan people in general re-read Ruben Darío not as an apolitical aesthete but as a political icon, and concludes that their "form of cultural revolution was the Sandinista's "love for poetry" (40). So while postcolonial theorists might claim to distance their theories from poststructuralism, they must ultimately follow closely its central tenet: the political sphere and the space of cultural production not only overlap and are in fact indiscernible, but they are also part of an imagined community in which a rhetorical praxis originating in postcolonial theory may convince the powerless that they can become empowered if they destablize the master narratives that control the imagined community.
It is an inescapable fact that the academy--postcolonial Latin American and U.S. multicultural studies inclusive--exists within a capitalist marketplace. No matter how hard theorists announce their distancing and withdrawal from this economic frame, they must ply their trade to exist within a society in which the academy, publishing houses, and all their sources of income are governed by the market economy characteristic of capitalism. The publication of certain types of books to be recognized for tenure, the building of star departments mustering prestige to increase fund-raising capabilities, and the reproduction of theoretical legacies by making disciples out of graduate students are some of the main means open to secure ones position in an increasingly precarious economy. One must work within the machine to stay alive, and this within the conditions of the economy that are rapidly deteriorating everywhere, including the United States and Europe. (Recall the modernistas, who secured their incomes as journalists, civil servants, ambassadors or lower-rank diplomats all while using esoteric beliefs as a critique and counter-knowledge system to imperialist materialism and technology.) Rafael De la Campa and Walter Mignolo both reflect on the Latin American scholar's position within the marketplace, who is forced to use English instead of Spanish if he is to be marketable: "Their academic future demands it", writes De la Campa (15-16). Under the impact of increasing pauperization and unemployment and underemployment in Latin America, these theorists have moved to the U.S. where today they outnumber in cities like Los Angeles and New York the total number in Latin America. This leads De la Campa to declare, "More than a field of studies, or the literary articulation of a hybrid culture, Latin American literature and criticism are perhaps best understood as a transnational discursive community with a significant market for research and sales in the industrial capitals of the world" (1). In sum: Mignolo, Sommer, De la Campa, Moya, Hames-García, as well as their colleagues, are compelled to work within a declining market economy that governs the academy and society as a whole. They must formulate theories that, in today's academic marketplace, must yield to a social/political reading of textual production that claims for itself the capacity to replace real political action by its textual ersatz. Thus, to produce a marketable commodity, theory must claim a power to transform reality through the textual/theoretical and to empower people.
The contradiction presents itself again. For all of these theorists talk of empowerment within globalization, their work cannot help but mirror the financial speculation that is taking place in today's gangrening economic system. Like today's declining capitalism that both creates a society of spectacle and uses speculation in a massively increasing way to prevent the fragile spectacle from crashing back to reality, Latin American and multicultural theorists must pump more and more theory to hold up both their positions in academia and the sand-castle theoretical frames they have built to obtain such positions.
Central to these theorists' articulation of subalternized knowledges is the impulse to reveal how the local structures make particular texts--the imagined community--unique. Sommer identifies a "rhetoric of particularism" (x) that contours the local to counter the outsider's desire to master and universalize nativist (or "minor", as she calls them) text-acts of the Americas. In her opinion, this has the pragmatic effect of promoting a liberal education wherein readers become "sensitive to textual markers of the political differences that keep democracy interesting and honest (4). Certainly, García Márquez's skies that snow angels or blossoming flowers should not be the only stand-in for artistic, exoticized expression of an entire continent. And assuredly, charting the local can open readers and student's eyes to a Latin America that is complexly layered and not simply a sign that refers to so-called Third Worldness. However, for Sommer and others, magical realism merely stands for a simplified sign of a text that critiques and/or buys into neo-colonial discourse. Its own complex expressive modes are lost, and complexity is given over to reductive declarations; the world is the text--again.
For these theorists, identifying patterns and structures would be equivalent to believing in a reality that is objectively out there. So for them structural analysis is anathema. Yet, the contradictory bind surfaces again. Sommer, Mignolo, De la Campa, Moya, Hames-García, et al are obliged to recognize patterns and structures even when they posit a subalternized, localized text-act that, they assure, can resist and transform master narratives. When Sommer sets up an analytic method to articulate a rhetorical specificity that identifies the intentional silences in her so-called "minor" texts, she references the paragon of structuralism, French narratologist Gérard Genette. Thus, to argue for the power of the literary text to disallow interpretation, she is forced to identify a recognizable and shared rhetorical system: "The challenge for readers of "minority' literature is to develop that system to include tropes of multicultural communication that block sharing" (24). Yet, the poststructuralists' world-is-text theory equates text-act with social/political-act: to write/read the revolutionary text is tantamount to doing the revolution. But, when Sommer informs her readers that Rigoberta Menchú strategically denies full mastery of her text/life and identifies this as a form of "respectful, nontotalizing, politics" (137), she is compelled to identify essential rhetorical structures that make up the testimonial act. So, for the local to be articulated, Sommer and other theorists must fall back on that very procedure they claim to have banished: structural analysis, that allows one to identify, compare and contrast independent features and even realize a transnational, universal-gesturing analysis.
As I have already mentioned, these Latin Americanist and postcolonial theorists rely on a conception of language and the world that reads all texts--social, political, literary, even the body--as effective and effectual acts. When Mignolo discusses the U.S. territorial expansion into Mexico's northern territories in 1848, then into the Caribbean between 1898 and 1959, he identifies the link between "territorial configurations" and "imperial languages and linguistic (colonial and national) maps" (249). The equation reality is text has been present in one guise or another in the different versions of poststructuralist theory. As Steve Woolgar (a constructivist-relativist sociologist of science) has put it, poststructuralism "is consistent with the position of the idealist wing of ethnomethodology that there is no reality independent of the words (texts, signs, documents, and so on) used to apprehend it. In other words, reality is constituted in and through discourse" ("On the alleged distinction between discourse and praxis," in Social Studies of Science vol. 16: 309-17.) Now, of course, the denial of an extra-textual reality is not only counter-intuitive (nobody in everyday life confuses words with their referents, nobody believes that the word "salt" will make his meat taste better), it is oxymoronic (literally pointedly foolish). If the world is a text, or if as Jacques Derrida said, "rien hors le texte" (there is no outside-the-text), all but a few sciences would be superfluous: grammar or linguistics would suffice for us to know or to investigate how all matter--from atoms and sub-atomic particles to human brains and societies--functions. Yet, postmodern and postcolonial theorists need to posit this assumption as an uncontested and incontestable postulate in order to be able to claim that the "revolutionizing" of a text is identical to the "revolutionizing" of minds and society. Hence, a postmodernist or a postcolonialist critic is, by definition, a revolutionary. Thus for Mignolo, speaking in polylingual "other tongues" (cf. Alfred Arteaga) is an act of articulating an "other thinking" that has as a matter of consequence the power to reclaim the colonized territories. Cherríe Moraga's bilingual writing in The Last Generation is another case in point. Mignolo writes, "Bi-languaging is no longer idiomatic (Spanish, English) but is also ethnic, sexual, and gendered. Spanish and English 'recede' as national languages, as the language of a nation called "Queer Aztlán' arises" (269). But when Mignolo identifies a poetics of Queer Aztlán and remarks that it is irrelevant that both English and Spanish are "hegemonic languages of the empire and the nation" and that their use is "unavoidable due to globalization and the consolidation of hegemonic languages" (269), he must base such considerations on the identification of essential linguistic structures. According to Mignolo, "linguistic maps are attached not only to literary geographies but also to the production and distribution of knowledge, changing linguistic cartographies implies a reordering of epistemology" (247). In other words, like Sommer, Mignolo must both acknowledge structures and at the same time deny them.
Social versus Empirical
Paula Moya and Michael Hames-García et al are aware of this double-bind and therefore apply Satya Mohanty's theory of postpositivist realism to their examination of identity. Hence, they directly acknowledge the possibility of an objective knowledge. However, because they maintain a constructivist stand, ultimately their theory still articulates objective knowledge as framed and determined by language, the individual, and the social. As Moya writes, postpositivist realists consider that "linguistic structures both shape our perceptions of and refer (in more or less partial and accurate ways) to causal features of a real world" (12). Consequently also, one can identify essential characteristics that define a person as woman and Chicana, but at the same time one must bear in mind the "different kinds of subjective or theoretical bias or interest" that inform such an understanding of identity (13). So while Moya puts forward arguments in favor of objective knowledge, she ultimately falls back on the relativist and constructivist notion that "knowledge is not disembodied, or somewhere 'out there' to be had, but rather that it comes into being in and through embodied selves. In other words, humans generate knowledge, and our ability to do so is causally dependent on both our cognitive capacities and our historical and social locations" (18), (the key words here being "causally dependent").
Postpositivist realism, then, isn't so much a "new" theory of knowledge as it is poststructuralism with a new sartorial cut. Linda Martín Alcoff's essay "Who's Afraid of Identity Politics" is a case in point. Here, Alcoff, like Moya, wants to have her cake and it too. Applying the eclectic procedure of her fellow postpositivist realists, she acknowledges the real existence of reality and the objectivity of truth, but at the same time and contradictorily, she does not want "to deny the constitutive impact of theory and social context on truth" (315). This contradictory stance allows Alcoff to eclectically posit the existence of identities as textual, or social, or personal constructs capable of transforming a world that is really out there. Hence she can conclude with the general methodological remark that "ontologies can be thought of as models of reality useful in science (or in social theory) that approximate the world as it is, thus capturing some truth about it, without enjoying a one-to-one correspondence with categories of entities as they exist completely independently of human languages or human practices" (316). And after this she can reiterate and adopt the fashionable relativist clause that says that "knowledge claims are contingent on theories that are themselves contingent in the sense that they might have developed otherwise" (317).
Poststructural and postcolonial ideas and theoretical constructions have flooded the American academic market for so many years now that any alternative to them seems almost impossible. Any attempt to reintroduce in literary studies and other related fields of inquiry a minimum of logical or scientific strategies is shortly met with aversion or contempt. The self-proclaimed progressive or even radical character of postcolonial and poststructuralist studies is branded as a weapon to belittle and block research that seeks to understand the actual functioning of texts as texts, as well as their modes of production and their modes of reception, and is used to chastise that research for being utterly void of an activist political and social agenda. So some recollection of the facts is in order. Since its origins, Marxism has been committed to fostering the radical (as opposed to partial) transformation of society in each country and throughout the world by means of the self-liberating action of the working class organized with its own totally independent organizations (both trade unions and political parties nationally and worldwide). This program has been distorted, more so, turned into its opposite in the myriad guises of reformist and counter-revolutionary policies adopted in the labor movement, even in the name of Marxism, all along the 20th century. Most likely as a result of this failure, it has become fashionable in academia to regard the classroom, the textbook, the essay and the treatise as the ersatz means of "empowerment" and "liberation" of certain members of society (women, gays, lesbians, Chicanas/os, African Americans, Asian Americans, and a large list of others), in lieu of the actual mobilization of an autonomously organized youth and labor force. But teaching, research, and writing do not necessarily have to be regarded in that fashion. Other goals are possible and desirable.
To acknowledge structure is not to sell out. In the field of Latin American literary analysis, for example, hypothesizing then testing to see how various storytelling structures work to convey meaning can provide a model that others in the field can build on. This is not to say that objective analysis is fool proof, only that there are certain basic patterns that we can identify as structures and on the basis of which one can build, accumulate, replace, and/or modify hypothesis with a view to interpreting texts with a more solid understanding of them. Such inquiry might produce a new theory of how texts convey meaning--what that meaning is in its diverse layers of complexity and how that meaning is received in the various sociohistorical circumstances--and/or it might partially overlap with older theories, but there is the basic understanding that the investigation fulfills the criteria of scientific reasoning (among them, coherence, and documented evidence). We can determine, for instance, how García Márquez, Cortázar, and Borges utilize and modify genres and storytelling techniques used by others in the Western literary canon as well as how they alter structures to work against existing canons. Take for example García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. To read it only "locally" would end up interpreting it simply as an allegory of imperialism and foreign hegemony that takes Macondo into Latin American modernity, which is tantamount to reducing the complex layers that exist within its pages. Forcing the literary text to correspond to an a priory agenda has readers reducing the text to a singular message instead of opening the door to engaging its rich complexity. Close readings of texts and identification of their essential structures or basic patterns can offer new ways of asking large questions concerning those texts, their authors and their readers. Finally, Sommer's caveat that "universal meaning will erase local cultural difference" (ix) is possibly but not necessarily so.
I do not propose isolation. We need to have dialogue across disciplines. In literature, for example, the insights procured by philosophical, social, historical, anthropological, psychoanalytic and other disciplines may contribute to a better understanding of the texts being scrutinized; however, from the point of view of literary analysis and theory, they are ancillary, not substitutes.
The observations I have written here about today's Latin Americanist and postcolonial studies--their attempt to simultaneously reject and finally embrace relativist and constructivist poststructuralism--direct our attention to how theory radically confuses the act of social and textual inquiry with wishful thinking and the spurious application of a political agenda. To reiterate: While knowledge is fallible and operates though a trial and error method, it is a system that relies on the fundamental understanding that there is an objective reality that can be known and on which we can operate changes. It is the role of the university to increase and to divulge such knowledge, and it is the role of the organizations built by the workers to mobilize the millions of people needed for the abolition of racism, sexism, homophobia, oppression and exploitation that exist in every country and worldwide. Theorizing a "subalternization of knowledge" and the identification of the "minor" texts that detain readers "at the boundary between contact and conquest" will do little to transform the real social circumstances that determine the life of workers and campesinos, women, ethnic minority groups, gays and lesbians, and so on . Simply, we are accountable for what we do and say. We need to develop theories and analysis, that others may verify or refute, in order to build productively the field of Latin American and U.S. multicultural studies.
De la Campa, Román. Latin Americanism. University of Minnesota Press, 1999
Jrade, Cathy L. Modernismo, Modernity, and the Development of Spanish American Literature. University of Texas Press, 1998.
Mignolo, Walter D. Local Histories/Global Designs: Coloniality, Subaltern Knowledges, and Border Thinking. Princeton University Press, 2000.
Moya, Paula M. L. and Hames-García, Michael R. Eds. Reclaiming Identity: Realist Theory and the Predicament of Postmodernism. University of California Press, 2000
Sommer, Doris. Proceed with Caution, When Engaged by Minority Writing in the Americas. Harvard University Press, 1999.