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Barbarian Theorizing and the Limits of Latin American Exceptionalism

From: Cultural Critique
47, Winter 2001
pp. 54-90 | 10.1353/cul.2001.0023

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Cultural Critique 47 (2001) 54-90

Two important concepts for Latin American(ist) cultural criticism define the focus of this essay: exceptionalism and Eurocentrism. The objective of my critique is to interrogate the limits of Latin American exceptionalism by placing it in dialectical tension with Eurocentrism. I aim to signal the ways in which exceptionalism as a mode of theorizing Latin American singularity -- while ultimately a critical endeavor -- tends to overlook its own symptomatic relationship with Eurocentrism, and thereby succumbs to the same problems that it identifies in Eurocentric discourse. Exceptionalism, I propose, is not simply a reaction to or result of external factors, such as Latin America's marginalization from the construction of Western knowledge. It is also a symptom of the tenacity of Eurocentrism within Latin American(ist) criticism. Just as Eurocentrism elides the intellectual contribution of peripheral or subaltern cultures to the epistemological constitution of the so-called West, so does exceptionalism reach its limits by focusing attention upon this very issue. Left aside is the engagement with epistemologies uncommonly, if ever, taken seriously in the rarefied discourses of Western knowledge production. At stake then is the role of the Latin American(ist) intellectual as complicit in the erasure of the epistemological plurality of Latin America.

The vehicles that will allow me to advance this critique include two critical methods put forth in recent years by Walter Mignolo: colonial semiosis and barbarian theorizing. After a brief discussion of the main tenets behind these ideas, I will then place Mignolo in dialogue with three other cultural theorists, whose works belong to an earlier critical moment: sociologist Fernando Ortiz's Contrapunteo cubano del tabaco y el azúcar (1940); anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski's introduction (1940) to Ortiz's text; and literary theorist and sociocritic Antonio Candido's "Literatura e cultura de 1900 a 1945" (1950). Through Mignolo and his predecessors, I will show both the critical possibilities and problematic limits of exceptionalist discourse for the study of the object called "Latin America." However, in order to realize such a critique, the key terminology that I employ will require some unpacking. Thus, explication of what I mean by exceptionalism and Eurocentrism seems warranted.


Two postulates, in dialectical tension, constitute Latin American exceptionalism. These assumptions cannot be proposed as sociocultural, empirical facts, even problematically. In other words, they can only be understood as critical tendencies that stem from a history of discursive effects whose primary causes, in the last instance, will always defy satisfactory disentanglement. Thus what I offer here is neither an endorsement nor a disavowal, but rather a statement of the component parts of the Latin American(ist) discourse that I am calling "exceptionalism": (1) Latin America is perceived to be a space where so-called universal theories of culture or society "don't fit." This position is well-known, and we could trace its clearly articulated form as far back as Simón Bolívar. (2) While "universal" theory so often finds itself poorly placed in Latin America, Latin America becomes a (geographical and discursive) space from which "universal" theories do not emerge. Given that the universalization of a theory is simply a euphemism for its canonization in patently local Western academia, the implication here is that, in the relevant parts of the world from which knowledge is produced, ideas emanating from Latin America are typically misunderstood, ignored, or erased. This side of Latin American exceptionalism is far more difficult to pin down, and yet more important to the commentary that follows.

Perhaps a quick story can help clarify the operations of this set of critical assumptions. In his introduction to Fernando Ortiz's monumental study of cultural transformation in Cuba--Contrapunteo cubano--Bronislaw Malinowski makes a promise. He reports that upon learning of Ortiz's now-famous neologism, "transculturation," his "instant response" was one of "enthusiastic acceptance." So eager is Malinowski's reception of the novel term that he happily provides the following confession to the reader: "I promised its author that I would appropriate the new expression for my own use, acknowledging its paternity, and use it constantly and loyally whenever I had occasion to do so" (lviii). Years later, in Transculturación narrativa en...

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