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Orality and Politics in Latin America: Thresholds of Illiteracy

From: CR: The New Centennial Review
Volume 13, Number 2, Fall 2013
pp. 203-222 | 10.1353/ncr.2013.0014

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Of the many longstanding debates taking place in contemporary Latin American thought, the question of cultural difference (from the West), as well as the semiological nature of that difference, remains one of the most pivotal and politically entrenched. Indeed, the last 20 years has seen the publication of a wealth of material dedicated to studying the emergence, form, and representation of indigenous speech and language within various cultural practices and emplotments, from the colonial era to the present. Generally, these debates have turned on the category of orality as the name for, and the means by which to conceptualize, the formal, political, and aesthetic properties of indigenous language and its relationship to Western, lettered writing. Indeed, the question of orality has come to feature prominently in discussions that aim to reconfigure the narrative of the clash between Amerindian and European cultural spheres through the presumption of an originary and persistent source of incommensurability at work in the former. Not surprisingly, one can find the discourse of orality underlying many of Latin America’s best-known cultural narratives such as Indigenismo, Magical Realism, Testimonio, and even Zapatismo in Mexico.

As it stands in these debates, however, orality/literacy has more often been assumed than critically interrogated. For what exactly is the relation between them? How, exactly, do we understand their relation as exclusive, irreducible, foundational semiological forms? Is it that one is inconceivable without the other, or that one must rely on the ontological guarantee provided by the other? At bottom, does this economy provide us with the insight needed to unconceal the sheer contingency of a social order in Latin America—that these categories are ultimately nothing other than empty, formal markers of difference/subordination to otherwise equal speaking beings—or does it smooth these power relations over? In other words, if orality is ultimately advanced here as an authentic, non-Western language form (i.e., orality as a logocentric reversal/substitute for Western literacy and written culture), what exactly is revolutionary or emancipatory about that? In more formal terms, is this binary conceived and deployed as a hegemonic-subaltern, or hegemonic-counterhegemonic relation? There is a difference; and though often confused, this distinction is significant and strikes at the core of the notion of the political and contemporary political thought in Latin America.

Of course, it goes without saying that the category of orality has never been simply a descriptive category, but rather a constitutive one burdened with the considerable weight of anthropological discourse whose implicit ethnocentricity cannot be easily dismissed. In a recent article, Galen Brokaw takes up the question of orality in Latin America and addresses this particular disciplinary problem in the study of alternative “writing” systems in the colonial era. Brokaw’s essay foregrounds the way in which the concept of orality within dominant historical and anthropological discourse not only assumes, of course, the existence of subjects and communities that persist (or have persisted) without any recognizable or legitimate (read: alphabetic) writing system whatsoever, but also how this concept perfectly accommodates itself to the underlying Western assumption of (its own form of) writing as the necessary condition for civilization: “Anthropological thought (whether it be expressed by historians, anthropologists, sociologists, or literary critics) has a tendency to draw a distinction between oral and literate societies based on the presence or absence of writing, which is usually defined in phonographic terms” (2010, 130). The problem with this premise, what Martín Lienhard has called the “fetishism of the written word” (1991, 5–11), is the series of other interconnected disciplinary conclusions that ultimately places Western writing and Western writing cultures at the apex of a long evolutionary curve. According to Brokaw, because “dominant historical and anthropological theories have often identified writing as a precondition for the development of complex socioeconomic and political systems,” orality and literacy have come to articulate, and correspond to, different and unequal modes of thought inextricable from the hierarchical structures they simultaneously imply (2010, 120). Under this anthropologico-historicist model, Brokaw reminds us, orality, because it posits a primitive evolutionary state of existence before writing, is simply and always subordinated to it.

Brokaw’s essay seeks not only to articulate the contours of an...



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