- What’s in a Revolution?
In recent years, historians of Latin America have been summoned to reflect on the significance of events that occurred two centuries before. It is not the first time that the so-called revolutions for independence have been the pretext for such clarion calls. A century ago, most Spanish American capital cities were festooned with parades, monuments, public festivities, and commemorations of independence. These events were meant to mark a process that supposedly began in 1810 and was brought to fruition by elites a century later. Celebrations of the past were occasions to congratulate rulers of the present, and sometimes they drew shameless genealogies between the liberators of 1810 and the presidents of 1910.
Nowadays the mood is different. For one, there is a less triumphal public spirit among elites, many of whom care less and less about the health of the polis. The populace, for its part, reciprocates with disinterest. It is fair to say that little will remain of the celebrations of 2010 when all the fuss is over. Unlike the monumental legacies of 1910, we will have to content ourselves with YouTube videos of the risible lecture on Spanish American history by Argentina’s president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, a speech delivered in sweltering heat on April 19, 2010, to Venezuela’s National Assembly, Hugo Chávez, Evo Morales, Daniel Ortega, and others to announce a “second independence” moment.
But if the public legacies of 2010 pale beside those of 1910, the same is not true of the historiographic production centered on the revolutions of independence. A [End Page 187] century ago, the history profession was at best coming into its own. Now, however, journals, academies, and publishing houses are pouring out a vast amount of work, most of it the result of several generations of professional scholarship. Indeed, the field is vast and diverse, so much so that many subfields of historical work no longer touch on one another’s debates or findings.
It is not just the scale of scholarship that has changed. Nor is this change in scale alone responsible for a degree of internal fragmentation. The hullabaloo a century ago was all about the trials and eventual triumph of nation building. The rulers of 1910 trumpeted their success (at least in their eyes) in finally achieving integrated nations, thus putting an end to chronic civil strife. Now the nation-state has much less purchase on the historical imagination, one of the reasons President Kirchner’s sermon appears so anachronistic. But the cause of nationalism has been pushed to the sidelines of analysis, especially by historians. The rights of subaltern peoples, transatlantic political vocabulary, the survival of imperial identities, and the triumph of localism and federalism—to name but a few of the subjects on which historians have fixated—dominate the field. The birth of the nation, or its failure for revisionists, is no longer the central theme.
The revolutions of 1810, as it turns out, saw the birth of many identities, movements, and political formations besides the nation. The result is that, if these revolutions once had a colligative significance organized around the nation, the new turn sees them to be about the proliferation of subjects and questions. This is all to the...