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American Quarterly 57.4 (2005) 1201-1210
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From Sidney Mintz to Antonio Benítez-Rojo, Americanists have recognized the plantation as a prime parameter of New World history.1 This system of semifeudal agriculture, dependent upon slavery and indentured labor, profitable to the extreme, provided the economic and social foundation for a wide range of geographic formations. Colombia, Central America, Mexico, the U.S. South, and the Caribbean islands all share the dubious distinction of a plantation past and, in some cases, a neoplantation present.2 Yet this common history of pain also has generated dynamic cultural and political connections that have proven increasingly fascinating to contemporary scholars. Look Away! The U.S. South in New World Studies represents one of the more provocative attempts to use the plantation complex as the basis for a reevaluation of regional and national relations in the Americas. The volume reads issues of race, space, and belonging from the U.S. South to the southern hemisphere and back in an unusually rich and stimulating manner, drawing surprising connections among Anglophone, Hispanophone, Lusophone, and Francophone writers. And it does so by taking seriously the capacity of the plantation to signify on a variety of geographic scales. Celebrating throughout the value of a transnational approach, Look Away! urges scholars to avail themselves of a methodology that can both challenge academic parochialism and inspire a reconsideration of how particular geographic units structure intellectual work. By foregrounding the limits of traditional American scholarship, this daring study of regional and hemispheric cultures invites its readers to rethink the value of those very boundaries and, more specifically, to question what the fiction of a national space necessarily excludes.
That a hemispheric perspective should prove attractive hardly surprises in an era of globalization. Whether labeled hemispheric studies, inter-American studies, or, in the case of the volume under discussion, New World studies, this defiantly border-crossing initiative appeals to historians, anthropologists, [End Page 1201] art historians, literary critics, and other scholars who seek a means of understanding culture and politics outside the national frame. To take two recent examples, anthropologist Nicholas De Genova argues for "the reinvention of Latin America" by Mexican-American Chicagoans, while historians Daniel Masterson and Sayaka Funada-Classen assess the emergence of Japanese communities across a range of nations: Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, and Colombia.3 The great advantage of such an approach is that it unsettles the often complacent reification of identity and community one finds in certain areas of scholarship; thus U.S. southern studies, long a discipline with strong hagiographic and commemorative tendencies, grows less predictable and, arguably, more relevant, when reframed by a new geography that ranges from the Southern Cone to the Arctic. Yet hemisphericism, like all transnational approaches, has its Achilles heel as well: a tendency to push aside conventional conceptions of space and subjectivity, to label them insignificant or, worse yet, reactionary. The impulse to celebrate all that transgresses customary geopolitical boundaries can render certain geographic fictions less than worthy objects of analysis. Look Away offers us useful illustrations of both sides of the issue, at once vivifying the power of transnational approach for scholars of U.S. southern and Latin American literatures and making manifest the drawbacks of disavowing the national altogether. That it does so by engaging critically with the long shadow of the plantation is perhaps its greatest achievement.
Space does not permit me to do justice to this impressive collection. In the interest of economy, I will not focus on the five reprints in the volume (fine pieces by Jane Landers, Kirsten Silva Gruesz, Lois Parkinson Zamora, and Ilan Stavans), but will instead concentrate on the original contributions to the collection. Look Away! opens with two essays that demonstrate how the plantation serves as the intellectual linchpin for the entire project: "Uncanny Hybridities," by editors Jon Smith and Deborah Cohn, and "Poetics of Oblivion," by George Handley. As Smith and Cohn put...