Scholar’s Rant I

What, really, is one to make of a history of colonial Mexico titled The Forging of the Cosmic Race that makes no mention–literally, none–of the source of the phrase “cosmic race”? I mean, not even in the Introduction?

I can only register disbelief and incomprehension regarding this.

New World babies as articulations of cultural difference

Note: This is heading in the direction of a preface or introduction to the book project. The image below is its starting place, at any rate. Would reading this make you want to read more? Comments welcome and encouraged.

detailfromriveramuralatnationalpalaceDetail from a panel of Diego Rivera’s mural at the Palacio Nacional, Mexico City. Click to enlarge. Photograph by the Mrs.

In a panel filled with figures, most appearing in full or partial profile, all going about the business of colonizing/being colonized, this infant, suspended in a plain rebozo from its mother’s back, its skin slightly lighter than its mother’s, slightly darker than that of the soldier I assume is its father, gazes fixedly at something just above and beyond the viewer’s left shoulder. It is difficult to say what accounted for my standing in front of this image for some minutes when my wife and I visited the palacio (Mexico’s national capitol building) back in October: whether it’s that the baby is the only figure in the panel’s foreground looking in the viewer’s direction yet not quite returning the viewer’s gaze; or the color of its eyes–two tiny stones of aquamarine in a sea of reds and browns and yellows. Or both.

Though I did not have this image in mind when I worked on my dissertation, in a sense it is precisely because of what we see in it that I chose that dissertation’s subject: an attempt to discuss historical and fictional narratives of consensual miscegenation as tropes of New World culture more generally. It is not merely that individual mestizos, métis, and mulattoes are, to borrow Joel Williamson’s phrase, new people; it is that the culture that has emerged in this hemisphere is also, I argue, something demonstrably different from the European, African and indigenous cultures that contributed to its creation. Analogous to the baby’s not quite gazing directly at the viewer, New World culture is simultaneously familiar and strange–and, moreover, not one fully explained by most mainstream critical theories of culture.

As an example of what I mean by that last statement, here is a passage from the introduction to Homi Bhabha’s The Location of Culture, coincidentally published in the year I defended my dissertation:

The move away from the singularities of ‘class’ or ‘gender’ as primary conceptual and organizational categories, has resulted in an awareness of the subject positions–of race, gender, generation, institutional location, geopolitical locale, sexual orientation–that inhabit any claim to identity in the modern world. What is theoretically innovative, and politically crucial, is the need to think beyond narratives of originary and initial subjectivities and to focus on those moments or processes that are produced in the articulation of cultural differences. These ‘in-between’ spaces provide the terrain for elaborating strategies of selfhood–singular or communal–that initiate new signs of identity, and innovative sites of collaboration, and contestation, in the act of defining society itself.

It is in the emergence of the intersticies–the overlap and displacement of domains of difference–that the intersubjective and collective experience of nationness, community interest, or cultural value are negotiated. How are subjects formed ‘in-between’, or in excess of, the sum of the ‘parts’ of difference (usually intoned as race/class/gender. etc.)? How do strategies or representation or empowerment come to be formulated in the competing claims of communities where, despite shared histories of deprivation and discrimination, the exchange of values, meanings and priorities may not always be collaborative and dialogical, but may be profoundly antagonistic, conflictual and even incommensurable? (1-2, emphasis mine)

Readers of Bhabha will recognize in this passage an implicit articulating of the concerns at stake in his concept of hybridity, an idea that has great resonance–and potential pitfalls–for the citizens of the Western Hemisphere1, and one I am largely sympathetic with. But, the bolded passage strikes me, a citizen of this hemisphere and someone who attempts to understand and write about its culture, as not quite speaking to our cultural condition. I would argue that it is precisely in “those moments or processes that are produced in the articulation of cultural difference”–phenomena that Bhabha calls on critics to examine so as to be “theoretically innovative and politically crucial”–that we find the New World’s “narratives of original and initial subjectivities”: the very sorts of texts Bhabha argues we “need to think beyond.” To put this in terms of the baby in Rivera’s mural, Bhabha’s stance is that we already know where babies come from. I contend that, in this hemisphere, we’re still trying to figure out how to articulate where this particular baby comes from–and what those origins tell us about ourselves as a culture.
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Culture and historical “forgetting”

Should a culture have a memory faithful to history? What role can/should legend and myth play in such a culture?

These are questions that the post-Encounter culture(s) of the Western Hemisphere must of necessity be concerned with. Over at my other blog I’ve put up a brief post that wonders aloud about these issues. I hope you’ll have a look over there and leave your comments either here or there.

The “ideology of form” and Go Down, Moses

The Vintage edition of Go Down, Moses. Image found found here.

Hosam Aboul-Ela’s book, Other South: Faulkner, Coloniality, and the Mariátegui Tradition, begins at the same place Glissant’s Faulkner, Mississippi does: that it might be useful to read Faulkner not as a Modernist or American writer, but as one whose region has much in common with those of other colonized places of the world, what Aboul-Ela calls the Other South. But whereas Glissant limits his discussion to Faulkner as a Caribbean (or Plantation) writer, Aboul-Ela’s range is more global and more overtly materialist in orientation. He uses the work of Peruvian intellectual José Carlos Mariátegui (1894-1930), a progenitor of (economic) dependency theory as a starting point for articulating a theory of postcolonial experience that originates in those regions rather than in Europe or the United States. He devotes a little over half his book to laying out the resulting “Mariátegui Tradition” before moving on to reading Faulkner’s Snopes Trilogy (The Hamlet, The Town, and The Mansion) and Absalom, Absalom! through this critical lens.

Given the orientation of the intellectual tradition of the Other South that Aboul-Ela outlines, it’s understandable why he chooses these works to discuss at length: they are the Faulkner novels that lend themselves most readily to such readings, driven as the plots of each are by the arrival in Mississippi of outsiders and their getting and controlling of property and wealth and the attendant power to the benefit of the Few As Possible and the detriment of local folks. But a chapter section entitled “The Ideology of Faulkner’s Form,” his lead-in to his reading of Absalom, Absalom!, made me curious, in connection with some comments I made here, what Aboul-Ela might have to say about the ideology inherent in Go Down, Moses‘ form. So, below the fold I once again mount my GDM hobby-horse.
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“They endured”: Further comments on Glissant’s Faulkner, Mississippi

Caroline Barr (1840-1940), the Faulkner family maid, to whom Go Down, Moses is dedicated. Image found here.

“They endured,” as readers of “Appendix: Compson” know, is the sum total of how Faulkner describes Dilsey, the Compson’s black maid in The Sound and the Fury. Glissant finds that a crucial textual touchstone in his effort to determine how Faulkner locates African-Amercans in his (Faulkner’s) vision of the South. If you read closely the excerpts from Glissant’s Faulkner book that I included in my previous post, two arguments emerge.

The first is that Faulkner confers not merely a sort of nobility upon black people relative to whites, he even holds them aloft–or prefers to hold them aloft–from History. They, unlike Faulkner’s whites, have no fate, no destiny to work out:

[Zack Edmonds] thought [as he looks at Lucas Beauchamp], and not for the first time: I am not only looking at a face older than mine and which has seen and winnowed more, but at a man most of whose blood was pure ten thousand years when my own anonymous beginnings became mixed enough to produce me. (Go Down, Moses 69, italics in the original).

Though Glissant does not say so explicitly, his early statement that Faulkner’s vision is that of epic invites the analogy: In that epic vision of the South, blacks are to the gods as whites are to mortals . . . except, of course, blacks are by and large unable to shape circumstances to their own advantage. Marginalized deities? The second is that, while Faulkner clearly sees such a positioning as honorific and ennobling of black people, Glissant and, by extension, African-Americans, see this (or should see this) as patronizing at best and, at worst, a denial of the same human agency that Faulkner’s whites have been cursed with.

All the above is why, as I’ve thought about all this, Go Down, Moses seems such a central text in the Faulkner canon–perhaps even the central text–and I’m not just saying that because if it weren’t for this novel I might very well not have written the dissertation (such as it is) that I did, much less be revisiting it now. In GDM, it seems clear, we find not only, through Ike McCaslin in particular, Faulkner’s clearest iteration of his conception of black people, we also find its most forceful rebuttal–as forceful as any that Glissant or any other critic could offer. The question that arises in my mind is, just how aware was Faulkner that his novel does that.
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The thing about manifestos . . . (summing up/responding to Mignolo)

Anon., El hallazgo de la Virgen de los Remedios. 18th century. Pinacoteca de la Profesa, Mexico City. Image found here

The thing about manifestos is their tendency toward the use of the broad rhetorical brush. Consider:

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.

Well, sure, you say. But.

Mignolo’s book, The Idea of Latin America (see this post and this post for some earlier comments), is part of Blackwell’s Manifestos series of books, and so it is likewise filled with similar language:

My point here is . . . that the “idea of Latin” America twisted the past, on the one hand, and made it possible to frame the imperial/colonial period as proto-national histories, and, on the other, made it possible to “make” into “Latin America” historical events that occurred after the idea was invented and adapted. . . . The “idea of Latin” America allowed the Creole elites to detach themselves from their Spanish and Portuguese pasts, embrace the ideology of France, and forget the legacies of their own critical consciousness. As a consequence, “Latin” American Creoles turned their backs on Indians and Blacks and their faces to France and England. (67)

Well, sure–and a little later I’ll be quoting from someone Mignolo surely has in mind here, José Vasconcelos. But as we’ll see, as Vasconcelos strains to see a vision of an essentially Europeanized Mexico, the fact that he has to strain is not inconsequential. Yet throughout his book, Mignolo argues that in the long view of the history of the Americas from the Encounter on, it is only “now”–the past 20 years or so–that what he calls the decolonizing of the Americas has begun to occur at the level worth considering [read: politics and trade].
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Blogging The Idea of Latin America

Image found here.

I’m pleased to say that I’ve just begun a happier reading experience than the one I reported on in the previous post.

I’ve just finished the introduction to Walter D. Mignolo’s The Idea of Latin America, and here are a couple of things said there that made me sit up straight. Italics in the passages below are Mignolo’s own:

Dialogue, properly speaking, cannot take place until there are no more places to be defended and the power differential, consequently, can be redressed. Dialogue today is a utopia, . . . and it should be reconceived as utopistic: a double movement composed of a critical take on the past in order to imagine and construct future possible worlds. . . . “[D]ialogue” can only take place when the “monologue” of one civilization (Western) is no longer enforced. (xix)

Mignolo’s book, as will become more evident in the second passage I’ve quoted, is speaking at the level of the cultural and historical and political: his book’s central thesis is that “‘Latin’ America” (his quotation marks around “Latin,” by the way) is a European/U.S.-imposed, and thus colonizing term; his book’s intent is to engage in “decolonizing” discourse concerning this region of the world. So, his book is not quite literary criticism (but then again, neither is mine, really–it just uses literature as its point of departure). Even so, this passage struck me because my project begins in part with an extended reading of portions of Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses–specifically, the conversation Ike has with his kinsman Roth’s mulatto lover in “Delta Autumn.” In that exchange, the woman speaks of not asking Roth to promise marriage “long before honor I imagine he called it told him the time had come to tell me in so many words what his code I suppose he would call it would forbid him forever to do” and that she had stopped listening to him “because by that time it had been a long time since he had had anything else to tell me for me to have to hear” (341-342). A way to frame what the woman had at one time hoped for with Roth–and which his “code” trumps in the end–is, it seems to me, precisely the sort of dialogue that Mignolo describes here.
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