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  • Latin American and World Histories:Old and New Approaches to the Pluribus and the Unum
  • Jeremy Adelman (bio)

The rise of world history courses in American universities appears to pose important challenges to Latin American history. Some say that globalization dissolves cultural differences into a sort of transnational convergence. The end of the cold war, others claim, demotes the role of ideology in favor of pragmatic applications of international market verities. The assault on area studies in favor of a universal social science has heightened anxiety among historians and social scientists who labored away in their bounded national or regional modes. As if the pressure on Latin American historians to connect their stories to developments outside the region and to play down idiosyncratic features of the region's past were not enough, "world" history has become a something of a rage. It is not a fleeting one, and it will have both salutary and possibly unfortunate effects on teaching and research agendas, especially as Americans come to terms (if fitfully) with the imperial dimensions of their "homeland." If my own department is any gauge (local quirks aside), Latin Americanists (as well as Africanists and Asianists) are asked to be part of "world" groupings, while European and American history remain relatively immune from the pressures to integrate. To recast the dilemma in particular United Statesean terms, some feel that it is time for Latin American historians (and the subjects they study) to join the unum from their pluribus.

Appearances can deceive. For one, this picture is overly stark. European and North American historians have been thinking about their subjects transnationally for some time. Nor are most world historians as counterposed to local history, especially of Latin America, Asia, and Africa, as might seem at first blush. Even the advocates of "big" history acknowledge that the past had to have a place in which to unfold and that all places are relatively bounded units. Though we might live in a global age, world history as a genre is almost as old as (albeit overshadowed by) national or regional history. While the two [End Page 399] strains have been more estranged than engaged, there have been previous conjunctures through which they have affected each other's developments.1

There is, however, a special relationship between Latin American and world history that has a longstanding history of its own. It is important to acknowledge this intellectual heritage. To let the challenge of integrating regional or national history into world history pass as a new development neglects generations of historical debate in Latin America and obscures what Latin American history and its historians have contributed to world history. Furthermore, acknowledging the centrality of world history to the unfolding of Latin American historiography highlights what is so fraught, and therefore fertile, about the region's past, and which lies squarely at the heart of its contested histories: the colonial makings of modernity in Latin America, and thus the imperial dimensions of the origins of modernity in Europe.

This essay has a vaguely imperial mission—that is, to suggest that Latin American historians have a decisive contribution to make to world history. Today's critiques of bounded area studies entail certain assumptions that are at odds with the creative ways in which Latin Americanists have for so long approached their subjects. It would be banal—but still true—to say that Latin American historians operate within historiographic traditions that link local and global developments. This essay makes an additional claim: that localized varieties of Latin American history are critical to how we understand world processes. In the rush to draw connections and show convergences, "big" history often misses the ways in which local or regional worlds (note the plural) disconnect and diverge—not because societies are the repositories of autonomous logics of development or survival, but because the structuring processes of world history create deep unevenness, inequalities, and new cycles of fragmentation. This is why although Latin America's precolumbian cultures, their encounters with Europeans, and the colonial and postcolonial structures they developed may have unique and particularized histories, as a whole they address the ways in which power distributes itself and is reproduced on a world...


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pp. 399-409
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Archived 2004
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