Rhetoric & Public Affairs 5.1 (2002) 210-212
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Proceed with Caution, When Engaged by Minority Writing in the Americas
Proceed with Caution, When Engaged by Minority Writing in the Americas . By Doris Sommer. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999; pp. ix + 365. $55.00 cloth; $24.95 paper.
Doris Sommer's book, Proceed with Caution, entertains a provocative thesis: sometimes writers purposefully lead readers astray. The "minority writing" Sommer studies strategically averts the undesired gaze of some readers who consciously seek out minority texts. Such readers may arrogantly assume they possess the requisite knowledge, background, and language skills with which to make sense of minority writing.
Rhetoric scholars who assume, as Sommer puts it, a "cultural continuity between writer and reader" (x), who strive for "identification," and who value rhetorical "empathy" may experience some degree of shock when reading this book. Sommer advocates caution when reading minority writing; rather than empathize, readers should hesitate, acknowledge their own readerly incompetence, and remain distant, skeptical, and wary when engaging texts. For her, empathy implies a false intimacy between a narcissistic reader and a writer who either withholds or consciously metes out bits of information about culture. For Sommer, readers are often interlopers, not the intended audiences of minority texts. These readers are insufficiently prepared to make sense of "particularist" texts that are directed to a specific "emic" (in-group) audience and not meant for the casual reader's consumption.
Despite her stated preference for "difficulty, ambiguity, or complexity" (x) in the reading process, Sommer's "intention is—of course and paradoxically—to refine readerly competence, not to dismiss it" (xiv). She seeks dialogue, social interaction, respect for differences, and the "socially enabling possibilities of acknowledging our own limits" (xiii).
Drawing heavily on Jean-François Lyotard's theory of the "differend," chapter 1 suggests that many readers are not the intended subjects of a given writer's discourse. To Sommer, these readers are curious onlookers seeking to know the thing in itself; they are voyeurs remaining quiet at a distance, risking little, consuming ("devouring," "possessing," "taking," "mastering," "cannibalizing") all, and hastening to crack open the text (sometimes sexually and aggressively). Minority writers, [End Page 210] however, skillfully make areas of knowledge unavailable to the hungry reader and "draw boundaries around that arrogant [readerly] space" (9). Hence, anticipating resistance, staying at a distance, listening, recognizing the specificity of enunciative positions, and being willing not to reduce "otherness to sameness" (19) is key to readerly competence.
After elaborating the thesis and providing a theoretical foundation for the book, in each chapter thereafter Sommer uses a case study to illustrate, albeit with variable success, how readers should approach minority texts respectfully. In each chapter, Sommer embraces the contradiction of texts and allows for a respectful, unequivocating engagement with the differences of the other, which supports the larger thesis of her book.
Most successful are chapters 3 through 6. Sommer encourages us to understand the historical and cultural background of such writers as El Inca Garcilaso de la Vega (chapter 3), son of a Spanish colonizer and an Incan, Peruvian mother. While Garcilaso's Comentarios were read primarily by Spaniards, by paying attention to both Garcilaso's "European bias" and his "Peruvian perspective" (63), a more satisfying interpretation is made possible. In chapter 4, Sommer illustrates how her interpretive method allows readers to see a Chicano perspective that other critics of the 1983 made-for-TV movie The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez seem to have missed, especially since the goal of the film "is to produce competent viewers and interlocutors from within an English-speaking audience that is, by definition, not ideal" (103). Through an examination of I, Rigoberta Menchú, an Indian Woman in Guatemala in chapter 5, Sommer argues that this testimonial makes possible a non-totalizing narrative that resists the pressure of discourses of homogeneity. In Menchú's testimonial narrative, secrets are purposefully kept from the reader. This rhetorical posture of hiding information "is a safeguard to freedom . . . that makes interaction a matter of choice rather than rational...