- Reviewed by
José Saldívar’s Border Matters is at once thoughtful, incisive, and self-reflective. As such, it is one of the most expansive and inclusive books recently published in the field of ethnic studies. It indicates some of the directions that American and cultural studies may take in the next millennium.
Perhaps the greatest strength of the book is that it aggressively politicizes and historicizes its discussion. It thus engages with the vexed [End Page 1013] desires of a Chicano critical consciousness that demands both grounded, historical, and practical, political planning and visionary, mythical, and moving cultural inspiration.
Saldívar’s analysis traces how the discursive spaces and the physical places of the U.S.-Mexico border inflect the reality of U.S. cultural production. Taking up an argument articulated by Gayatri Spivak and others, Saldívar proposes that border discourses are emerging as the dominant discursive forms in American studies. His study thus stands at a crossroads where cultural studies is becoming increasingly a form of border studies.
One manifestation of this transformation is evident in the concrete political context in which Saldívar situates his discussion. He does not let us forget that his work is driven by the fact of U.S. militarism and the low-intensity war being fought daily on the U.S.-Mexican border. While noting the centrality of borders to the development of so many academic discussions, Saldívar underscores the distance between discourse and the sociopolitical struggle of borders and border-crossers. He thus forces his reader to face the central question his work raises: “Has cultural studies [. . .] become institutionalized in U.S. academies at the cost of its political edge?”
Saldívar’s text represents an attempt to answer this question with a resounding “no!” He does this by directing his attention to the critical project he last took up in The Dialectics of Our Americas: reorienting American Studies along a North/South rather than East/West axis. This reconfiguration allows him to focus “on the yet unwritten literary and cultural history of Chicano/a and Latin American social cultural ‘theorists’ and postmodernist intellectuals.” He thus reads the anti-imperialist work of Américo Paredes as a preliminary step in examining how contemporary Chicano poets, writers, and artists configure identity and space in the borderlands.
Saldívar provides, in his typically well-informed and lucid style, a synthesis and overview of contemporary cultural theory in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. He finds through studying the work of such writers as Renato Rosaldo, Vicki Ruiz, George Sánchez, and Néstor García Canclini that they are new intercultural theorists sensitive to both local processes and global forces. Their discussions are unified around the attempt not to rely on simple dichotomies such as the local and global, [End Page 1014] the resistant and revolutionary. In considering the work of Américo Paredes as an earlier, modernist formulation of border theory, Saldívar argues that his texts offer an Adornian negative dialectic. Paredes’s poetry, in particular, establishes the contours of a Chicana/o subjectivity that can be traced through contemporary poetic texts. Paredes thus offers “a representative précis of postcontemporary Chicano/a poetic practices, based on social theory and ethnocultural methodology.” Saldívar closes out this section of his discussion, and the first half of the book, with a study of border space as produced by novelist Arturo Islas and painter Carmen Lomas Garza. He concludes that these artists radically reframe and reconceptualize the provincial and cosmopolitan, the regional and worldly, in a move that resonates with the work of contemporary cultural theorists.
As suggestive as this conclusion is, one cannot help but be a little puzzled by some of Saldívar’s terminology. That is to say, while he sees Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in the 1930s as subjects of “typical colonial discourse,” just what the term “colonial” signifies within the contours of his discussion remains unspoken. By the same token, he notes that “it seems clear to me that whereas modernism’s...