On the drive south from Nashville to Oxford, Mississippi, the state highway passes through the central square of Bolivar, Tennessee—named for the Latin American independence leader, Simón Bolívar.1 Like George Washington in the United States, Bolívar is woven into Latin American geography: the republics of Bolivia and Venezuela (official name: the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela) are named in his honor. The name “Bolívar” designates avenues, squares, and parks across Latin America; it labels currencies (the Bolivian boliviano and the Venezuelan bolívar fuerte); and both the name and Bolívar’s ideas were taken up as the guiding (although not exclusive) principles of Hugo Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela. The name “Bolívar,” we could say, functions like hard currency, both in the sense of its wide circulation and its viability as a sign to which particular—although often contingent and not necessarily consistent—values are attached.
In Bolivar, Tennessee, the connection between the town and the origin of its name is affirmed by the bust of Bolívar—donated by the government of Venezuela in 1983—that sits in front of the courthouse; it is one of two in a town of just over 5,000 residents.2 This, moreover, is not the only “Bolivar” in the United States: there are towns with that same name in Mississippi, Missouri, West Virginia, and Ohio, as well as a peninsula near Galveston, Texas. The dislocation—in the strong sense of the term as removal of a thing from its proper place—and circulation of names is by no means new or unusual: geography bears the marks of the past and these marks in turn make it possible to for us to trace the often-violent histories of contact, exchange or extraction, and dissemination that have supplied (that is: dislocated, relocated, and recoded) those names.
Along similar lines, Mary Louise Pratt’s Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation opens with a reflection on Livingstone’s Drugstore—located in the town of Listowell, Ontario, where Pratt grew up, and owned by Dr. Livingstone, a distant relative of the Scottish missionary and explorer, David [End Page 1] Livingstone.3 The names of the store as well as of the town itself are examples of what Pratt describes as:
Redundancy, discontinuity, and unreality. These are some of the chief coordinates of the text of Euro-imperialism, the stuff of its power to constitute the everyday with neutrality, spontaneity, numbing repetition (Livingstone, Livingstone. …) [etc.](2)
The Euro-imperial encounter—characterized by the violent instantiation and maintenance of a particular balance of power—produced Listowell, Ontario, and this town in western Tennessee, just as it produced the political context from which the Latin American republics emerged in the early nineteenth century.4 The name “Bolívar” originates in the town of Ziortza-Bolibar, located in the Basque region of Spain.5 However, Euro-imperialism is not the only story of the place-name Bolivar. What it makes present in this case, if only briefly, are the multiple and variegated afterlives of that encounter in the Americas, as well as the manifold dimensions of the circulation of signs within the world system.6 In one possible reading, the appearance of the name “Bolivar” in the rural landscape of the United States symbolically reverses the flows of geopolitical power that have characterized relations between the US and Latin American countries in the last century: the name of the Libertador stakes claim (more than once) to a part of the United States just as the United States has laid claim to Latin America as its “backyard.”
The place (Bolivar) and name (Bolívar), therefore, share in the qualities of redundancy, discontinuity, and unreality Pratt identifies above. I add to Pratt’s list the term “uncanny,” as the unsettling response generated by the confrontation with a familiar name in an unfamiliar place—my own reaction to encountering a Bolívar in western Tennessee. The feeling of estrangement is produced by the change of place (the sense of being out of place or misplaced) but also by the change of context. In Tennessee, the courthouse bust of...