restricted access Coda: The Places of the “Third World” in Contemporary U.S. Culture
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Coda The Places of the “Third World” in Contemporary U.S. Culture The places of this book’s writing have been of utmost importance for me. The local senses of a place, shaped as they sometimes imperceptibly are by the global and regional scales of uneven development and capital accumulation, have both shaped and sometimes undermined the national fantasies I have attempted to trace here. The work that became this book began in New York City with its indispensable archives and its indelible (though many have tried to elide it) Latin American history . But the notion of “underdevelopment” as a comparative, ideological , and U.S. concept, rather than just a national, empirical, and foreign one, took shape in the aftermaths of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and Fordism in Detroit. Underdevelopment, as I hear it most often today in the United States, is a synonym for “decline”: rather than a belated state of social and economic progress elsewhere, it is an arrested state of progress interrupted or reversed here. Its power comes from the analogy thus made between the world of progress in the global North and the misery thought to reside in the South. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, as I sat in my apartment in Queens watching news of the calamity playing on the TV, the only way, it seemed, for popular journalism to render the scale of destruction was by analogy to underdeveloped nations abroad. The comparisons, in all their crudeness, had a grain of historical truth. New Orleans has been and is still a cultural and economic transit point of the Americas; its history is a Caribbean one. Yet the narrative of the disaster that quickly emerged was that of a “national tragedy” taking place in a “great American city.” So the comparisons of New Orleans to the “third world” illuminated little about New Orleans’s transnational history but revealed much about a U.S. nationalism that denies that such a history exists. Because there was 202 Coda seemingly no domestic equivalent that would make the tragedy intelligible , many journalists resorted to analogies to a generalizable abstraction called “the third world.” The New Orleans I saw on TV and read about in the press that summer was “America’s third world”; it was compared variously to Baghdad, to Sierra Leone, to Congo, and to Haiti, its residents , in turn, compared to the “refugees” thought in the United States to be the unique problem of such places.1 The first use of the term “third world” was probably the Frenchman Alfred Sauvy’s in August 1952, in the magazine L’Observateur: “This ignored, exploited, and distrusted Third World, just like the Third Estate, wants to be something,” he wrote. In Sauvy’s usage, the ordinal number “third” directly referenced the French Revolution, suggesting a ­ political rather than pathological understanding of the anticolonial movements mobilizing this “third world.” As Todd Shepard argues, however, the term was also from the beginning deeply racialized, connected to a pseudoscientific, anti-cosmopolitan view of racially distinct populations linked to distinct geographies, a version of which we have seen in the environmental determinists of chapter 2. Thus, even though the “thirdworld ” idea was successfully reclaimed as a political identity of crossracial anticolonial unity, the concept also has a colonial, racist lineage, which it has never entirely lost.2 For Vijay Prashad, for whom the third world was (in the past tense) “not a place but a project,” its importance lay in its expression of a­ political and secular desire, by a union of the former colonial peoples for a more equal distribution of the world’s material and intellectual wealth.3 “Third world” had a political valence less present in cartographic terms like “global South,” and this geographic unspecificity was the point. The “third world” was everywhere, and it therefore offered the possibility of uniting disparate peoples divided by language, race, and religion under a common secular banner of social progress. This was the vision famously captured by Richard Wright in The Color Curtain, his report from the 1955 Bandung conference of postcolonial nations: “The­ despised, the insulted, the hurt, the dispossessed—in sort, the underdogs of the human race were meeting. Here were class and racial and religious consciousness on a global scale. Who had thought of organizing such a meeting? And what had these nations in common? Nothing, it seemed to me, but what their past relationship to the Western world had made them feel.”4 Wright, in his typically...


Subject Headings

  • United States -- Relations -- Latin America.
  • Latin America -- Relations -- United States.
  • Latin America -- Foreign public opinion, American -- History.
  • Public opinion -- United States -- History.
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