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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What to expect

Time to rouse this blog from its slumbers . . .

On the off chance that anyone still comes ’round here, here are some things to look for within a week or two:

1) a post (or two, more likely) in which, pivoting off some things Margarita Zamora says in her fine book, Reading Columbus, I try to use Columbus as an exemplum for an argument that New World writing (as distinguished from “American” writing, and I haven’t forgotten about doing that . . . ) requires a rather different approach to reading it, one rooted in the dynamic of the Encounter itself. I have a pretty full post laying out those things over at Blog Meridian, so I’ll refer you over there if you want fuller explanations; but I can boil them down to these summaries: A reading of Columbus as a producer of New World texts before the fact (Roberto González Echevarría’s book Myth and Archive: A Theory of Latin American Literature will be useful here, too). All this is bound up in an idea I have about wanting to discuss the New World as a heterotopic space.

2) Also inspired by Zamora, and linking up as well with Benedict Anderson’s discussion in Imagined Communities about the necessity of a concept of “homogeneous, empty time” in order for a sense of nation-ness to emerge in a people: Something that in the dissertation I call a “search for a language,” one that fumbles toward articulating the experiencing of this heterotopic space. In the diss., I worked this out via a long reading of Cabeza de Vaca’s Naufragios, along with some brief excursions into other texts; the Zamora and Anderson will help buttress that. Also, based on what I’ve read thus far in Ilona Katzew’s Casta Painting, some discussions of the impulses behind their production may appear here, too.

3) Or, the material on casta paintings might get their own post as a follow-up to my earlier, initial post on these paintings.

Lots of irons in the fire, in other words–which is, you know, good.

Initial response to “Miscegenation” post

[Update: some obvious errors corrected; some phrasing now (I hope) a little clearer]

I’m truly appreciative of the thoughtful, thorough, and challenging responses to my previous post. You have given me much to think about and re-think. I’ve been quiet on this end in part because of teaching duties but mostly because I needed some time to think through your comments and compare/contrast them to my own intentions and assumptions, examined and otherwise.

What’s meant here, then, isn’t a rebuttal but more like a sketching out of what I’m thinking about now in response to your critiques–and, of course, how my project can best be informed by those critiques.
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“Miscegenation” as (a) “domestic issue”

It seems felicitous that I’m beginning this post on April 14: 180 years ago today, Noah Webster published his American Dictionary of the English Language. I say this because the word “miscegenation,” whose usage in these pages I’ll be discussing here, is in every sense an American word. More about that later.

I’m writing this post partly out of necessity–one of its concerns is, after all, the vocabulary of its subject–and partly in response to some questions asked of me by Jennifer and a commenter, cvt, over at Jennifer’s blog, Mixed Race America. Each wanted to know whether my choice of the term miscegenation when discussing racial admixture is a conscious one, and Jennifer has a post in which she asks her readers to comment on the efficacy of using loaded language and words and phrases with difficult and painful histories.

Here are the questions Jennifer poses:

Can loaded words and contested terms be rehabilitated? Can they escape, in the case of “concentration camp” the tragic and overwrought associations with one of the worst genocides of the 20th century? Can we use a term, like “miscegenation” to simply mean “inter-racial” without invoking its etymological roots in race baiting and its historic use as a word associated with negativity, rancor, and hatred (because whenever “miscegenation” was invoked in the mid to late 20th century it was usually done in the context of “anti-miscegenation” laws, ie: laws prohibiting inter-racial marriage, or white racist Southerners invoking the fear of “miscegenation” as a rationale for school segregation.

I suppose a few more questions to consider are:

*Why is this loaded word or contested term being used in current, contemporary usage?
*What is the purpose of this rehabilitation?
*Who is trying to use this term and for what purpose?
*Is there another term that is as accurate/precise in its meaning as the contested term? Why is it important to use the contested term rather than the less loaded word?

My response is below the fold.
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The “encounter with the Encounter”: New-World-centric reading

Note: This, with a little fiddling around with wording and minus footnotes, is an excerpt from my dissertation’s introduction. Context: The intro. begins with a lengthy discussion of Columbus’s voyages and how his confusion in thinking he was in Asia arose, basically, from not seeing what was around him–by insisting that he could be no place else except Asia. From there, I make the claim that then-current (early-’90s) theory-driven readings of, in particular, Latin American texts often to my mind guilty of the same error Columbus made: that of reading the New World through the lens of the Old World. This produced readings that simply didn’t make any sense when placed within the historical, social and cultural contexts of the hemisphere. This circumstance began to change, ironically, just about the time I was writing my dissertation; Homi Bhabha’s The Location of Culture appeared in 1993 with its powerful notion of hybridity–something I would have addressed in the dissertation had I known of it. Yet another reason to return to this thing. Anyway, from having declared wrong-headed for the Americas a whole bunch of post-colonial theory, I then propose another sort of reading. That is what follows.

I don’t yet know how much of the introduction I’ll keep. At the very least, it needs some extensive rewriting to account for hybridity and for the ways that idea has been both used and found suspect. That said, the reading of the poem that closes things is the sort of strategy I employ quite often, and I think it still reads well.

This project makes the claim that it is not only possible but necessary to articulate a theory of “New-World-centric” discourse, a theory which does not merely transpose Old World theory onto the cultural realities of the Americas. Such a discourse would both produce and comment upon New World texts in a manner peculiar to (or, if you like, “indigenous to”) the region. It would, like New World culture itself, synthesize discourses from throughout the world into a heteroglossic amalgam that both blends and becomes something other than its components. Like many studies of Latin American literature, this one accepts as given the critical commonplace that New World literature is a literature of encounter, a literature of the meeting and clashing of cultures. But in the recent past many critical texts have pursued this commonplace in an equally commonplace direction. Continue reading

Casta paintings

De Espanol y Negra, Mulato - 18th Century Casta Painting.De Español y Negra, Mulato. Image found here.

The “Images” page for Domestic Issue now has three examples of casta paintings (one striking example of which you see here), a genre that was once quite popular during the colonial era but languished as an area of serious academic inquiry until the 1960s. The subject of casta paintings is simple: they depict mixed-race couples of various sorts along with their progeny; the paintings’ captions name the racial types of the parents and the type of their resulting progeny. One of the paintings is technically not a casta because it does not place its figures in a domestic setting, nor do they have progeny (it’s a formal wedding portrait) , but the husband and wife are of different races. A chaste casta painting, if there is such a thing.

I didn’t discuss casta paintings in my dissertation because at the time I barely knew of their existence. For the book project, though, they will definitely figure into it.

I will return to this subject as I do more reading and thinking about it. In the meantime, the curious should go here for a lengthy discussion.

Barack Obama’s post-race politics, Part II

(Part I is here)

So how does Barack Obama articulate a post-race politics in a nation–in a hemisphere–whose history has been shaped by racial tension literally since before Columbus? Here in the speech Obama gave at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial, he reframes the theme of race in this country in such a way that no one can be excluded from that history by talking about it, and our nation, in theological terms:

By his own accounts, [Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.] was a man frequently racked with doubt, a man not without flaws, a man who, like Moses before him, more than once questioned why he had been chosen for so arduous a task – the task of leading a people to freedom, the task of healing the festering wounds of a nation’s original sin.

Those last 12 words, as I noted back in November, so simply and directly and eloquently encapsulate the history of race relations in this country from Jamestown to the present that I literally had to stop reading to catch my breath and wipe a few tears from my eyes. But what really caught my attention is that, in his theological figuring of racial injustice in the political/cultural/historical context of a nation, all are complicit, all equally tainted, all equally punished–because all have transgressed (though, to be sure, in different senses). This sort of language doesn’t emerge from focus-group testing but from deep conviction in the truth of those words. That fact makes them all the more audacious, all the more thrilling that a politician–any politician–would bare his convictions in such a way.

[Aside: compare to this language, from Hillary Clinton’s speech in Selma on the same day Obama delivered the one to be discussed later:

“I come to share the memories of a troubled past and a hope for a better tomorrow. Our future matters, and it is up to us to take it back, put it into our hands, start marching toward a better tomorrow.”

While I have no reason to doubt her sincerity, it’s not as though her language exactly resounds in the memory, much less seek to engage us intellectually, as Obama’s does.]

That trope of “original sin” unites blacks and whites in our common inheritance as Americans, compelling us to work out our national and cultural “salvation” together, bearing equal individual and collective responsibility for that working-out. Framed in this way, then, race, as traditionally talked about in this country, isn’t an issue. The question of Obama’s blackness becomes moot.

Or ideally, it should. Continue reading