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Radical History Review 89 (2004) 25-35

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Essential Histories, Contingent Outcomes:

Latin Americanists in Search of a Discourse

To speak of personal histories on "Latin Americanism" might appear as a contradiction in terms for at least two reasons. First, it presupposes an individual perspective and at the same time demands a certain degree of ubiquity: Latin Americanism as a sentiment or a subjectivity that spans from Tijuana to Ushuaia or from Octavio Paz to Martínez Estrada. Second, it takes us from a contingent perspective (personal history) to an essentialist aspiration, given that Latin Americanism suggests an ethos or a telos that underlies this periphery's harsh map.

However, and despite the apparent contradiction, intellectuals aspire to some degree of universality, and Latin Americans have long held on to their essentialist aspirations in referring to this periphery. Among essayists, statespeople, educators, and enlightened travelers, "Latin Americanness" has been a recurring question, a driving force, and a search: a shared regional identity, truncated by encounters and misunderstandings from without and within, in part originary, in part syncretic, and in part an unfulfilled project.

The tension resulting from the difficulty of generalizing from a personal perspective and the latent aspiration to speak from an inclusive Latin American perspective leads in some way to the itinerary of a personal history of Latin Americanism. A personal history that does not rely so much on one particular case (whether mine or anyone else's), but rather on how social reflection historically crystallizes vis-à-vis [End Page 25] a supposed object unity that it must create on the basis of the tremendous internal heterogeneity of the object of study, proposing common traits gathered from an accumulation of diachronic accounts and local situations not very easily presented as a unified whole or marked by common signs.

Today's diversity of themes and analytic referents leads us to think that Latin Americanness bewilders its enquirers as it parades the stage of a great masked theater (in masks that end up either delineating or modifying its face). The attacks against logocentrism contained in cultural and gender studies situate Latin Americanism as a concept that should first be deconstructed and then thrown into the pot with the rest of the totalizing ideologies. The brutal and sudden loss of sovereignty of Latin American states, in an atmosphere of globalization, exudes an acidic smell of humiliation in which Latin Americanism no longer relates to a tragic destiny but is seen as a parodical grimace that speaks for itself and does not leave much to unravel. In light of the recent and profuse amount of literature—a large part of which abjures the intellectual Latin Americanist past as naive, pretentious, or ideological—any personal narrative of Latin Americanism linking the past and the present seems rather arbitrary.

Hence, how did we come to invent this Latin American universality and identity through intellectual reflection and the diffuse figure of the intellectual or social scientist? In what ways have we relinquished these aspirations in the past two decades? The following pages take up these questions. However, I ask the reader's indulgence of my own share of discretionality in presenting this panorama. This seems unavoidable when painting with such broad brushstrokes, for the sake of brevity, on such a small canvas that is provided for these issues.

In Search of Universality

In Latin America, the banners of modernity and modernization have stalked us in an eternal cycle as we search for universals. Since the end of the nineteenth century, and with greater intensity following the Second World War, the universal was seen as a raw material to be grasped and sculpted. By doing so, the goddess of reason would allow a vast region of national states to transit, speaking in Hegelian terms, from historical infancy to full adulthood; from nonreflexive immediacy to self-consciousness; from dispersion to cultural unity; from economic backwardness to the conquest of development; from precarious productivity to industrialization; and finally, from archaic atavisms to a disciplined attachment to modernity codes.

For a long time...


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pp. 25-35
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Archived 2004
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