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MLN 116.2 (2001) 453-454

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Book Review

The Burden of Modernity

Carlos J. Alonso.The Burden of Modernity. The Rhetoric of Cultural Discourse in Spanish America. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. 227 pp.

The Burden of Modernity. The Rhetoric of Cultural Discourse in Spanish America, the last book by Carlos J. Alonso, examines the literary production of Spanish American modernity as well as an exemplary set of cultural discourses surrounding it and in their relationship with metropolitan discourses. An invaluable contribution to the discussion of modernity and postmodernity in Latin America, this essay looks particularly at the "intrinsic discordances and disjunctions" that, although a "characteristic of all writing, become more salient in the Spanish American text given the particular nature of the rhetorical situation in which it is inscribed" (5). In this way, Alonso constructs a critique of the very founding impulse that attributes an accomplished modernity to the European or North American referential center, thus identifying this tendency in a variety of versions of the Latin American position with respect to the discourses of modernity. An ambiguous embracing of the latter stems from what the author calls "the Spanish American discursive situation"; one that, argues Alonso, distinct from other post-colonial situations, "was an attempt to identify the new countries (when not the entire liberated continent) with the future rather than with some autochthonous cultural reality" (11). Following this path the author is able not only to produce new readings of the texts he analyzes (scoping from Sarmiento, the Cuban antislavery novel, Mansilla, Horacio Quiroga, Vargas Llosa, García Marquez and Carlos Fuentes) but also to advance a cogent critique of different versions of Latin American modernity enjoying an amplified currency in academic discussions. The aim of this latter enterprise is to unfold the moments in which a variety of theoretical enterprises (Beatriz Sarlo's version of "peripheral modernity," transculturación, Eduardo Subirat's reconsideration of Spanish Enlightened thought, the figure of the letrado in Angel Rama's cultural history and the subsequent versions of the state function of literature, etc.) revealed themselves as being compromised in "a dialectics of restoration through the affirmation of the opposite" (25), (or through a parodic appropriation in case of transculturación) thus ultimately leaving untouched the assumed organicity of the metropolitan discourses on modernity. The state function of literature, for example, as an historic [End Page 453] assumption embraced by Julio Ramos and others, highlights the uneve453nness of Latin American modernity, assuming by the same token the clear-cut separation of the discursive spheres in the center and obscuring the rhetorical position of the sub-continent paramount in Alonso's analysis. Here Alonso identifies with the abandonment, opened up in the postmodern period, of the impossible desire for the metropolitan discursive object, which allows for a reconsideration of Latin America's problematic modernity not as a melancholic "incapacity to be modern" (48) but as a necessary and ultimately enabling ambiguity toward the hegemonic model.

The kind of situated deconstructionism that had already proved to be fruitful in Alonso's analysis of the regional novel (The Spanish American Regional Novel. Modernity and Autochthony, Cambridge UP, 1990) is also very appealing in this new and broader examination of the cultural production of the continent. But what I find problematic in this otherwise very well- constructed argument is that, when trying to escape from the pitfalls of a substantialist logic (of both Latin American identity and metropolitan modernity) by way of this relational "discursive situation," it assumes a meta-historical investment in this futurity of the modern by all the cultural discourses of the continent. Moreover, it seems that some necessity of advancing an "exemplar" or "purified" deconstructionist situation--if such concepts might be allowed--in which no traces of a cultural pre-colonial and colonial past are left and the confrontation with the metropolitan discourses is made only by charting the fissures embedded in the modern text's rhetorical structure, forces the argument to its most problematic extremes. In this fashion, while acknowledging that the self-presentation of...


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