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CR: The New Centennial Review 1.1 (2001) 283-296
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Debra A. Castillo
Subalternity and Representation: Arguments in Cultural Theory By John Beverley. Durham: Duke University Press, 1999
Proceed with Caution, When Engaged by Minority Writing in the Americas By Doris Sommer. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999
A NUMBER OF LATIN AMERICANISTS HAVE IN RECENT YEARS TURNED OUR attention to the historical legacy of the long European colonial experience in the Americas, and to the Eurocentric tinge that remains part and parcel of the postcolonial theorizing that frequently—although not exclusively—circulates through and from First World academic locations. Scholars like Walter Mignolo have commented on the enthusiastic reception of token Third World intellectuals in First World theoretical circles, and on the somewhat belated, often hedged, interest in the less-academic practice of other Third World actors (underclass writers and indigenous activists, for example). The multiple ironies of this interest on the part of both First World and Third World theorists are patent. Thus, Mignolo calls for the "reordering of the geopolitics of knowledge," such that "it is not so much the historical postcolonial condition that should retain our attention, but rather the postcolonial loci of enunciation as an emerging discursive formation, and as a [End Page 283] form of articulation of subaltern rationality" (93, 95). Mignolo's call to action echoes and is echoed by an enormous range of other scholars in U.S., Latin American, and—to some extent—European intellectual circles, and has served as the organizing theme for a growing number of monographs and anthologies, as well as academic journals. It is also a fundamental grounding discourse in the work of the two very distinguished scholars under review in this essay.
At the heart of these often abstract, academic exchanges about people from an underclass and non-Eurocentric background are questions about them and us, agency and/versus representation: questions of how to define their agency when they inevitably come to us represented through the framing discourse of our academic texts. The problem remains of how to reread the paradigm of modernity from the perspective of a locus of enunciation outside that of the Western subject. Colombian philosopher Santiago Castro Gómez comments that the "herencia [colonial] sigue reproduciéndose en el modo como la discursividad de las ciencias sociales y humanas se vincula a la producción de imágenes sobre... 'Latinoamérica,' administradas desde la racionalidad burocrática de las universidades" often, he suggests, in U.S. universities with agendas and ideologies that enter into direct conflict with Latin American interests. Even when these U.S. interests are discounted, Castro Gómez continues: "las narrativas anticolonialistas jamás se preguntaron por el status epistemológico de su propio discurso" (188-189), creating a blind spot by which the non-European other is inevitably framed and analyzed through the filter of Eurocentric discourse. Not only, then, are scholars like Mignolo and Castro Gómez calling for a more careful and thorough analysis of the relations between imperial history and knowledge construction; they also call for the recognition of alternative theoretical knowledge from Latin America about Latin America. Even more radically, in relation to Western institutional settings, they identify the need for an outside critique of Eurocentric knowledge systems, a paradigm shift that will allow for a distanced observation beyond that obtaining when Europeans observe themselves (observing the other).
It is precisely this kind of concern that most deeply exercises both Sommer and Beverley in their recent books. Beverley says it clearly: "I do not [End Page 284] see this book solely or even mainly as a contribution to Latin American studies. . . . It is not even really a book about subaltern studies. I would like it to be read instead as something like a 'regional' contribution to a critique of academic knowledge" (2). Sommer wants us to see "how one-sided interpretation has been, even when we read 'minority' texts," and proposes in her work to adumbrate a rhetoric of particularism to help dominant-culture readers maneuver adroitly and respectfully among specific types of minority...