Continental Divides: Remapping the Cultures of North America (review)
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Reviewed by
Adams, Rachel. Continental Divides: Remapping the Cultures of North America. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2009. 310 pp.

More than half a century after La invención de América, Edmundo O'Gorman's insistence that we attend to the ideological consequences of geographical categories continues to be salient. Rachel Adams contributes to the discourse O'Gorman founded by exploring the genealogy of the narrower imagined contruct of North America. Continental Divides complements recent works like Walter Mignolo's The Idea of Latin America, though its agenda—"to introduce the continent as a heuristic frame for comparative cultural study" (23)—is considerably less prescriptive than Mignolo's.

Adams argues in her cogent introduction that unlike its equally fictive "Latin" counterpart, the concept of a unitary North America emerged in the early 1940s and gained traction as the "reigning metageographic concept" (12) of US diplomacy [End Page 513] during the Cold War, in some ways superseding the worn-out hemispheric ideal. Slippery from the outset, the term sometimes gestured at a presumed Anglo-American solidarity between the US and Canada, though the extent to which this cloaks a US-centric worldview is tellingly revealed by the virtual synonymity of norteamericano and estadounidense in Latin American usage, as she notes. A selection of alternatives to that dominant geopolitical mapping is also reproduced here, ranging from the Chicano Movement's reclaimed Aztlán to utopian, alarmist, and satirical visions of the continental order. The passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement was obviously a watershed in the genealogy of the concept, and Adams carefully separates herself from any celebratory notion of the cultural and political unity between Canada, Mexico, and the US that is inevitably projected by that regional imaginary. Instead, she takes pains to show "the implausibility of that project" (17). Yet when critically applied, she argues, this continental optic can reveal the unequal economic and political relations that NAFTA elides, and thus can be more revealing than "more geographically inchoate rubrics such as globalization or diaspora" (7). For her, the frame of North America becomes a device to "bring into view alternate histories and cultural formations that might be obscured by an exclusive emphasis on the nation–state, or by too-close attention to any one region" (246).

Continental Divides takes aim at less balanced comparative studies built around spatial constructs like the border or the hemisphere, contending that "U.S.-based Americanists have shown considerable interest in Mexico, but typically ignore Canada or treat it as an extension of the United States, while those scholars of Mexico and Canada who have written comparatively about the United States rarely take one another as objects of critical interest" (6–7). She challenges Latin American and Latina/o studies scholars to assume, instead, "a genuinely comparative view of North American borders that locates them in relation to one another and to borders in other parts of the world" (21). Her archive, while clearly tipped more toward English-language materials, achieves that sense of relation.

Because of its refusal to impose a false sense of coherence upon the fictive construct of the continent, Adams's study wisely does not pretend to historical or regional completeness. Its coherence derives instead from the total effect of the loosely connected case studies that make up the book's six chapters. While the main focus is on works of fiction, each chapter also offers adroit readings of other forms of cultural expression: plays, photographs, documentary films, and conceptual art, nodding toward Diana Taylor's enlarged notion of what might comprise the archive of the Americas. This amplitude of selection risks seeming diffuse, yet many of the chapters are so lively and thoughtfully conceived that one wishes they had grown into separate book-length studies of their own. The opening chapter, on fictions of transnational indigenous solidarity, opens and closes with post-NAFTA [End Page 514] visual works by Native American artists. Although Adams is not the first to notice analogies between the cross-border revolutionary movement depicted in Leslie Marmon Silko's epic Almanac of the Dead and the actual rhetoric of Mexico's EZLN, her analysis digs deeper to find a...


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