Latin American Research Review 39.1 (2004) 223-237
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Latin American Longues Durées
For as long as Latin American writers have been reflecting on the region, they have turned to deep-seated cultural, political, and material [End Page 223] histories to account for the apparently singular blend of upheaval and continuity. Octavio Paz's 1950 meditations in The Labyrinth of Solitude: Life and Thought in Mexico are perhaps the most famous reflections in a long tradition of writing about traditionalism. However, in recent decades historians have shied away from such expansive analysis. Perhaps it was the death of "dependency" approaches as the prominent way to tackle durable material legacies. Maybe cultural "traditions" smacked too much of essentialism—a blanket no-no in a scholarly mood that bristled at the mention of fixed identities. Whatever the reason, it became unfashionable to posit theories about Latin American historical trajectories over the very long-run.
Now the longue durée is back. Fernand Braudel and the French Annales school were not the founders of the notion that structures can have histories, but they did give it currency. Braudel was especially insightful because he argued that history stretched over the very long-run did not imply a static, unchanging past—but rather advocated an approach that balanced stable equilibrium with conjunctural disequilibrium. The return to the very long-run in Latin America is not a belated embrace of Braudelian history. Latin Americanists were, in any event, more open to French historiography than Anglo-Americans ever were. It could be argued that this turn reflects a revival of Latin American historiographic traditions. Going back to Paz, The Labyrinth of Solitude was an ethereal account of how the Mexican past developed a continuity out of discontinuity, of how each cycle of history destroyed its antecedents, only to rebuild its foundations. The books under review represent a return to the idea that Latin America has durable histories, but with one important caveat: durability need not mean stability or stasis.
Implicit in this idea that the longue durée need not be static are two ways of dealing with the very long-run. Both of these are apparent in these books. One examines how societies, economies and polities laid down their substrates at certain pivotal moments of history and created the geomorphic foundations for shifting landscapes over the centuries. These shifts can be momentous or minor—but nonetheless conform to underlying structures that are so tacit that they are all but...