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Nepantla: Views from South 4.3 (2003) 567-589

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Plights and Flights of Historical Reason within and against Pax Americana

Fernando Gómez

Howard J. Wiarda The Soul of Latin America: The Cultural and Political Tradition New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001. 417 pp.
The United States, settled and colonized in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, belonged, right from the beginning, to the modern world. It was nascently capitalistic, middle class, nonconformist, supportive of representative government, religiously pluralistic and educationally and legally inductive and scientific. It had no feudal past, no feudal institutions to overcome on the path to modernity. Latin America, in contrast, was dominated from the beginning by feudal and medieval concepts and institutions. If one agrees, as the classic History of Western Civilization texts state, that the modern era begins roughly in 1500—with the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment, the scientific and industrial revolutions, and the movement toward secular, limited, representative government—then the United States was founded on a set of principles and institutions that were basically modern (post-1500) in character, whereas Latin America was founded on principles and institutions that were still essentially feudal (pre-1500) and medieval.

—Wiarda, The Soul of Latin America

The official word from the Castle—think of Franz Kafka—is that temporalities have de jure been flattened out, perhaps for good, and that locations have de facto become increasingly interchangeable, nonspecific, when not thoroughly immaterial, inside and outside the intellectual business. Severe lack of perspective (or the blind, [End Page 567] unilateral insights in the disjointed core of empire) is a sign of the imperial times, while we are surrounded by bubble-blowing, lazy-lip, euphemistic ephemera, call it Americana, in humanistic scholarship as elsewhere. In case you forgot, "History" (but the singular is as odd as a unicorn) is coupled, often by our students, their parents, and other visitors with "whatever." So we are apparently in the "whatever" of history already in this new century.

There is no easy way out of engaging with Americana, be it intellectual product or mass entertainment. So, the initial suggestion is always to keep an eye on the indigenous varieties of historical awareness, the tight knot of virtues and vices, and you can safely bet that some native types, Howard J. Wiarda is our example here, will go (historical, imaginary) places faster than you thought possible. See and hear no evil, and sticking your head in the sand like the ostrich will not be an intelligent way of proceeding. Should you not find many friends around, don't worry: you will develop a flair for making do. That is, after all, the main lesson learned in the early years in our profession. You will make a virtue out of lack and eat your boot for lunch like Charlie Chaplin. Keeping eyes peeled and ears unplugged, you will kill time, boredom, and perhaps a few flies along the way with your tail (as in the Spanish proverb). Let us now briefly play devil's advocate with conventional history made in the U.S.A., or history as usual, as exemplified by The Soul of Latin America, my choice for the "foreign affairs" model of engagement with the "un-American" world.

This text delivers no less than five hundred years of political and cultural history of "Latin" America. It is always healthy to denaturalize the "Latin" sign. As the Dan Quayle joke goes, "they speak Latin there, right?" But "Latin" is the colonial legacy of the Iberian peninsula in the Americas, a tremendous, latent dimension that could also be called the Hispanic or South Atlantic dimension, if only in juxtaposition to the hegemonic North Atlantic or Anglo-Saxon English–mediated channel of communication (perhaps the old nomenclature of "germánicas" and "hispánicas" is not altogether useless here). This "Latin" sound bite is clearly a Goliath that no David of theory will ever knock to its knees with a slingshot, although you would never know the size of this human monster from looking at the standard...


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