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  • Commentary:Hemispheric Partiality
  • Paul Giles (bio)

The advantages to be gained from reimagining American literary history along hemispheric lines emerge clearly enough in the essays brought together for this special issue of American Literary History. The hemispheric dimension puts yet another stake through the heart of the unquiet corpse of American exceptionalism, while at the same time, through its inscription of a north-south rather than an east-west axis, interrogating what Ralph Bauer has called "Euro-centric epistemological assumptions about literary value" (8) in relation to the Americas. It also highlights the increasing importance of multilingualism to American literary study, a point exemplified most obviously here by Vera M. Kutzinski's piece on the reception and circulation of Langston Hughes's work in Latin America and the different meanings associated with his texts there. Above all, hemispheric studies serve the purpose of, in Walter D. Mignolo's words, accentuating "the ratio between geohistorical locations and knowledge production" (121). This involves a form of radical demystification, a process which emphasizes how "modern epistemology narcotized its own locus of enunciation and projected an idea of knowledge as universal designs from particular and hidden local histories" (123). Rather than attempting to identify the ontology of specific locales in the old area studies manner, Mignolo has preferred to deploy what he calls "border gnosis" (12) to open up questions of cultural difference.

In this sense, hemispheric studies perform the double duty of both illuminating aporias in universalist discourse and deconstructing the reifications of place that have become encrusted upon specific US regions.1 Kirsten Silva Gruesz challenges here the static conception of an American "South" by reorienting southern US history and culture toward Central America and the Gulf of Mexico, and indeed one of the most obvious benefits so far of hemispheric studies in relation to the Americas—witnessed here in the essays by Gruesz, Guterl, Alemán, and Rivera—has been to focus more attention on the US–Mexico border as a discursive site for the construction of [End Page 648] American literary history. In relation to nineteenth-century studies, this has involved a noticeable deflection of attention away from the Civil War of the 1860s toward the US–Mexican wars of twenty years earlier. The romantic myths of Southern plantations which, as Tara McPherson has observed in Reconstructing Dixie: Race, Gender, and Nostalgia in the Imagined South (2003), effectively shored up a regional tourist industry as well as the traditional academic industry of Southern studies served also to underwrite a patriotic narrative of fall and redemption, wherein racial and sectional divisions would ultimately become reconciled within a more complete union. It is not surprising to find that this kind of sentiment should have enjoyed so much prominence recently through PBS documentaries and the like, since popular reactions against globalization all around the world have inspired many such nostalgic misrecognitions; it is, though, slightly surprising to find Civil War legends still so prevalent within scholarly environments, although this perhaps exemplifies ways in which nationalist assumptions have silently permeated and shaped academic outlooks. As Gruesz points out, one thing brought sharply into focus by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was the way in which ecological forces acknowledge no national boundaries, and the rapid growth of environmental studies is another important factor pushing American studies toward an increasingly postnational matrix.

Despite all this useful work, the theoretical problems associated with any conception of hemispheric studies are not difficult to recognize. The idea of a hemisphere is no more or less of a cultural fiction than the idea of a continent: Mignolo reminds us how fifteenth-century Christian cosmology named these land masses after the sons of Noah—Japhet, Shem, and Ham representing the spaces we know today as Asia, Africa, and Europe (130)—and this historical antecedent holds a mirror to the way in which any human form of territorialization is organized inevitably around personification. Moreover, unlike the privileged domain of the nation-state, neither continent nor hemisphere has enjoyed any coercive or (with the exception of a few economic trade agreements) legislative power to complement its status as a cultural fiction. One obvious pitfall of hemispheric studies, then, is the prospect of simply replacing...


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