- From Lack to Excess: “Minor” Readings of Latin American Colonial Discourse
Yolanda Martínez-San Miguel opens From Lack to Excess: “Minor” Readings of Latin American Colonial Discourse with an intriguing juxtaposition of two epigraphs: an excerpt from Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz’s epistolary romance to the Portuguese Duchess of Aveiro and Homi Bhabha’s famous description of colonial mimicry as “almost the same but not white.” Sor Juana’s verses boast of her American distinctiveness to a European audience (“Que yo, Señora, nací / en la América abundante”), while Bhabha refers to the discrimination imposed on colonial subjects, but both quotations point to the colonial–metropolitan tension between proximity and distance, similarity and difference, which Martínez-San Miguel seeks to recover in what she calls “this collection of minor readings of colonial texts” (16). By “minor reading” she means a focus on the marginal and transcultural dimensions of texts that also participate in hegemonic discourse; following Deleuze and Guattari, she describes her study as “identifying the moments in which these texts become minor vis-à-vis the imperial literature to which they also belong” (38). The dual opening epigraph brings a seventeenth-century poem into conversation with a contemporary theoretical essay in a way that the book strives to do as a whole, as it “analyzes the narrative and rhetorical structures of Latin American colonial texts by establishing a dialogue with contemporary studies on minority discourse, and colonial and postcolonial theory” (16). Although the theoretical terminology that results from such a dialogue may appear excessive to some readers, there is no lack of insightful interpretations revealed by these “minor readings” of major works by Columbus, Cortés, Las Casas, Cabeza de Vaca, el Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora, and Sor Juana. Readers will recognize a familiar colonial literary canon in this selection, but From Lack to Excess succeeds in pulling these well-known and oft-studied texts together in a coherent and novel way.
In Chapter One, “Colonial Texts as Minority Discourse,” Martínez-San Miguel situates her approach within recent discussions in colonial Latin American, postcolonial, and transatlantic studies. The synthesis of these debates is useful, although the careful attention paid to the promises and pitfalls of certain paradigms and terminology—colonial, transatlantic, early modern, hemispheric, etc.—does not extend to the use of “Latin America” as a geocultural unit in the colonial period (a “Latin America” that appears, in this book, to exclude Brazil). The first chapter also explains the utility of reading colonial texts as a form of “minority discourse,” in terms of their ambiguous relation to imperial power: like contemporary minority groups, the colonial producers of this discourse are both marginal and visible, [End Page 591] “capable of exercising pressure” or critique (29). In other words, “their texts are simultaneously mimetic and disruptive of an imperial order, . . . so different, yet so familiar,” as the epigraphs from Sor Juana and Homi Bhabha illustrate (40). Martínez-San Miguel is not so much interested in the construction of an ambivalent colonial subjectivity as in its textual and discursive forms: “how this ‘colonial’ condition is incorporated into the verbal strategies of the chronicles and written texts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries” (16). Thus the conquistador Hernán Cortés’s Second Letter, for example, can also elicit a “minor reading,” one that emphasizes the text’s disruption without failing to acknowledge its complicity in the imperial system. Her approach thus has the advantage of grouping together written works that share similar rhetorical strategies, and which address similar (European) audiences, but whose authors’ backgrounds and identifications vary widely, from the Genoese Columbus and the Spaniard Cortés to the Peruvian mestizo Inca Garcilaso and the Novohispanic creoles Sor Juana and Sigüenza y Góngora.
In Chapter Two, “Colonialism, Power, and Narration: Columbus, Cortés, and Las Casas,” Martínez-San Miguel moves from Columbus’s acknowledgment of the incommensurability of language to represent a New World to the narrative...