Close Encounters of Empire
Writing the Cultural History of U.S.â"Latin American Relations
By Gilbert M. Joseph, Catherine C. LeGrand, Ricardo D. Salvatore
Duke University Press Copyright © 1998 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
Gilbert M. Joseph
Toward a New Cultural History of U.S.–Latin American Relations
It is a commonplace that Latin American history has been powerfully influenced by foreigners and foreign powers—not least by North Americans and the United States. Not for nothing do Mexicans refer to their neighbor as the "Northern Colossus" and visit the government's "National Museum of Interventions" (which showcases invasions of the patria by European powers as well as the United States). Nor is it surprising that throughout the hemisphere Latin Americans joke sardonically that "When the United States sneezes [undergoes a recession], we get pneumonia [experience full-blown depression]." Or, that the images Cubans, Chileans, and Central Americans nurture of North American wealth and corporate power or CIA plots are invariably dark and larger than life—images codified by some of the hemisphere's most influential writers: José Martí, José Enrique Rodó, Pablo Neruda, Miguel Angel Asturias, Carlos Fuentes, and Gabriel García Márquez, to name but a few.
Of course, there are also more benign legacies, heroes, and mythologies. Fidel Castro quoted Tom Paine and Thomas Jefferson long before he invoked Lenin, and for a time played baseball as passionately as politics. Mexican journalists report the strong influence of the U.S. New Left on the Zapatista leader of Chiapas, Subcomandante Marcos. No world leader has enjoyed as enduring and popular a cult in Latin America as John F. Kennedy. The intimidating Northern Colossus is also "El Norte"—"el otro lado" (the other side)—a sanctuary for Latino immigrants and refugees; a source of insurgent support (e.g., Cuba in the 1890s, 1950s, and since 1959; and Mexico in the 1910s); and a mecca for tourists and consumers. In short, the U.S. (and broader foreign) presence is varied and complex, and it has cast a long shadow.
In seeking to understand the influence that North Americans and other foreigners have had on the region in the post- (or, as some prefer, neo-) colonial period, Latin Americanists first studied foreign investment and commercial affairs, diplomacy, and military interventions—and relied disproportionately on U.S. sources. Not surprisingly, their analyses reflected prevailing notions regarding the determining influence of climate, the struggle between "civilization and barbarism," the "challenge" posed by "modernization," the specter of "communist subversion," the deforming legacy of imperialism, and so forth. In the 1960s and 1970s, "Dependency theory" held center stage among progressive intelligentsias north and south of the Rio Grande: the structural subordination of Latin America as a periphery within the capitalist world system was held responsible for the "development of underdevelopment," understood primarily in economic terms. Like its neoclassical predecessor, "modernization/diffusionist theory," the predominantly neo-Marxian dependency school emphasized the power and influence of the "developed" world in shaping Latin America, but—as we shall see presently—the two paradigms were diametrically opposed in their interpretation of whether the results were positive or negative.
The Postmodern Challenge
Today, with theories of imperialism and dependency under attack and the once-discredited diffusionist model recycled (yet again) in "neoliberal" form by the managers of the "New World Order," Latin Americanists across a variety of disciplines and a new generation of historians of U.S. foreign relations (once known as "diplomatic historians") are challenged to study the region's engagement with the United States in innovative ways. New poststructural concerns with the intersection of culture and power, with historical agency, and with the social construction of political life are producing new questions about the nature and outcomes of foreign-local encounters. Turning away from dichotomous political-economic models that see only domination and resistance, exploiters and victims, Latin Americanists (like their counterparts in African, Asian, and European studies) are suggesting alternate ways of conceptualizing the role that U.S. and other foreign actors and agencies have played in the region during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. At the same time, they are integrating gendered, ethnic, and linguistic analysis in their research designs; challenging the conventional separation of "public" and "private" spheres (and thereby expanding notions of the political); unsettling such seemingly fixed categories as "the state," "the nation," "development," "modernity," and "nature"; and in the process rethinking the canon of such traditional genres as diplomatic, business, and military history, and international relations theory.
This volume represents the first systematic attempt to take stock of this exciting watershed and, in the process, to theorize a new interpretive framework for studying the United States' formidable presence in Latin America. Contributors explore a series of power-laden "encounters"—typically, close encounters—through which foreign people, ideas, commodities, and institutions have been received, contested, and appropriated in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Latin America. We should be clear at the outset: our use of the term encounter in conceptualizing the range of networks, exchanges, borrowings, behaviors, discourses, and meanings whereby the external became internalized in Latin America should not be construed as a euphemizing device, to defang historical analysis of imperialism. Sadly, in much of the literature on the 1992 Columbian quincentenary, the term performed just this sanitizing function. Equally, it is not our intention to reify "Imperialism," validating Leninist identifications of it as the "highest stage of capitalism," or imposing other teleological conditions for its study.
Rather, we are concerned in this volume with the deployment and contestation of power, with scrutinizing what Mary Louise Pratt refers to as the "contact zones" of the American empire. As these essays vividly demonstrate, U.S. power has been brought to bear unevenly in the region by diverse agents, in a variety of sites and conjunctures, and through diverse transnational arrangements. Forms of power have thus been multiple and complex: simultaneously arranged through nation-states and more informal regional relationships; via business and communications networks and culture industries; through scientific foundations and philanthropic agencies; via imported technologies; and through constructions of nationality, race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. Contact zones are not geographic places with stable significations; they may represent attempts at hegemony, but are simultaneously sites of multivocality; of negotiation, borrowing, and exchange; and of redeployment and reversal.
We feel no obligation to rehearse the attenuated debate over whether or not the United States has been an imperial power—a debate that continues to preoccupy U.S. diplomatic historians and American studies scholars. To argue in the manner of George Kennan and subsequent generations of "realists" (and latter-day "postrevisionists") that if the United States briefly had an empire in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War, it promptly gave it away; that, therefore, imperialism has always been inconsequential to U.S. history; that, unlike the great powers of Europe, the historical experience of the United States has been characterized by "discovery" not "imperium," "global power" not "imperialism," "unipolarity" not "hegemony" is to perpetuate false notions of "American exceptionalism" and to engage psychologically in denial and projection. Such arguments also ignore structures, practices, and discourses of domination and possession that run throughout U.S. history. A quarter century ago, as the United States' defeat in Vietnam became apparent, the notion that the United States was an imperial power gained wide acceptance; leading politicians like Senator J. William Fulbright openly described the nation's foreign policy as "imperialist." By contrast, today, amid the continuing celebration of the defeat of the Stalinist regimes of Eastern Europe, "you need an electron microscope to find 'imperialism' used to describe the U.S. role in the world."
A provocative recent collection, The Cultures of United States Imperialism, edited by American studies scholars Amy Kaplan and Donald Pease, dissects this "ongoing pattern of denial" among U.S. policymakers and academics and seeks to "name" the empire again. The volume's contributors argue compellingly that the politics of U.S. continental and international expansion, conflict, and resistance have shaped the history of American culture just as much as the cultures of those the United States has dominated. The book makes a powerful case for restoring empire to the study of American culture(s) and for incorporating the United States into contemporary discussions of "postcoloniality."
Cultures of United States Imperialism also begins to fill the lacuna that most preoccupies contributors to this volume: the absence of cultural analysis from the overseas history of U.S. expansion and hegemony. The realist school's overriding emphasis on high politics, the balance of power, and national security interests had not gone unchallenged: beginning in the mid-1950s, William Appleman Williams and a subsequent generation of New Left, "revisionist" diplomatic historians called into question realism's paradigm of denial, focusing almost exclusively on the economic determinants of empire. In doing so, however, they neglected the role of culture in the imperial expansion of "America's frontier." Kaplan writes:
Revisionist emphasis on economic causality may have stemmed in part from the effort to endow imperialism with reality and solidity against the subjective explanations ["moral idealism," "mass hysteria" generated by the yellow press] given by those "realists" who relegated empire to a minor detour in the march of American history. The economic approach, however, embodied its own contradictions, which led to multiple debates among historians ... about whether the fabled markets ... were mere "illusions," as opposed to having "real" economic value. If economics is privileged as the site of the "real," then cultural phenomena such as the belief in markets, or racialist discourse, or the ideology of "benevolent assimilation" can only be viewed as "illusions" that have little impact on a separate and narrowly defined political sphere.
To combat such dichotomized, economistic thinking (which Williams himself would temper in a later volume on "empire as a way of life"), the contributors to Cultures of United States Imperialism wrote about "those areas of culture traditionally ignored as long as imperialism was treated as a matter of foreign policy conducted by diplomatic elites or as a matter of economic necessity driven by market forces." Nevertheless, given their predominant orientation as American studies scholars, and literary and cultural critics, the volume's contributors focused overwhelmingly on questions of representation and disproportionately on how U.S. imperialism had influenced or consolidated North American rather than foreign cultures. And although the editors wisely caution against theoretically segregating material and cultural/discursive analysis, the former is largely conspicuous by its absence in this otherwise absorbing volume.
While our project has much to say about the "representational machines" of empire—the technologies and discourses that conveyed empire to audiences back home (see particularly the essays by Salvatore and Poole)—it is more concerned with representation as an integral dimension of imperial encounters "on the ground." Particular attention is given in these essays to a materially grounded, processual analysis of U.S. interaction with Latin American polities, societies, and cultures. The manner in which international relations reciprocally shaped a dominant imperial culture at home, although implicit in several of the essays, is not a central concern here; even less so are the modes by which imperial relations have been contested within the United States. For these matters readers can profitably consult Cultures of United States Imperialism.
If terms such as encounter or engagement, which appear in many of the contributions, are not meant to affirm the neutral notion of social gatherings that much recent scholarly writing has chosen to emphasize, what do they connote? Certainly they designate the connectedness of specific material and discursive interactions in the contact zones of empire; moreover, they are multivalent. On the one hand, they index attempts by people of different "cultures" to enter into relationships that need not deny or obliterate the subjectivity of the other party: efforts to understand, empathize with, approach the other; gestures to establish some type of bond, commitment, or contract. On the other hand, encounter and engagement also connote contestation and conflict, even military confrontation (not for nothing are these terms synonymous with battles in military parlance). Indeed, the derivation of encounter from the Latin is itself instructive: the word fuses in ("in") with contra ("against").
Thus, these terms designate processes and practices through which the other is rendered proximate or distant, friend or adversary (or some more ambiguous, ambivalent status), practices that entail mutual constructions and misunderstandings—the recourse to "othering" and "orientalizing" that is inherent in power-laden contexts. Our emphasis on close encounters in Latin American contact zones—or, as Bill Roseberry prefers in his contribution, diverse "social fields"—suggests interactions that are usually fraught with inequality and conflict, if not coercion, but also with interactive, improvisational possibilities. Such a perspective, according to Pratt, treats imperial relations "not in terms of separateness and apartheid, but in terms of copresence, interaction, interlocking understandings and practices."
It should be clear that, without wanting to be canonic in our understanding of "culture," this volume's contributors work within a broad Gramscian tradition, examining the links between culture and power. If pressed for a portmanteau concept, we might define culture as the symbols and meanings embedded in the daily practices of elite and subaltern (or foreign and local) groups, but with the proviso that such a definition is not intended to rigidly specify what the contents of those symbols and meanings are—a static, reifying exercise at best. Rather, our definition would underscore their processual nature, and insist that both elite/foreign and popular/local understandings are constantly being refashioned. At once "socially constituted (it is a product of present and past activity) and socially constituting (it is part of the meaningful context in which activity takes place)," culture—popular or elite, local or foreign—never represents an autonomous, authentic, and bounded domain. Instead, popular and elite (or local and foreign) cultures are produced in relation to each other through a dialectic of engagement that takes place in contexts of unequal power and entails reciprocal borrowings, expropriations, and transformations. Throughout this volume, the reader will encounter cultural practices and institutions such as music, art, literature, folklore, mass media, leisure pastimes, and spectacle; she will also find herself immersed in the broader cultural realm of aspirations, beliefs, values, attitudes, tastes, and habits. But if the manifestations of inter-American culture are many and diverse, their history is always interwoven with political intentions and consequences.
This book's contributors include historians and anthropologists from the United States, Canada, and Latin America. An effort has been made to introduce senior scholars in the fields of Latin American studies and the history of U.S. foreign relations to each other, as well as to members of a newer generation in these fields. Moreover, in order to facilitate discussion between Latin Americanists and scholars working on similar problems elsewhere, the book is structured in the form of a dialogue between more general theoretical and comparative statements (in the introductory and concluding sections) and Latin American case studies based on recent research (in the volume's extensive middle section).
No single volume can adequately cover the waterfront—in this case, a veritable universe of multiform imperial engagements that have occupied the Americas over two centuries. We have sought to feature instructive and absorbing cases representing mainland and circum-Caribbean areas, and to include Brazil as well as Spanish America. If the Caribbean basin and Mexico receive proportionately greater attention, it is because, owing to propinquity, they remained the principal theaters of North American geopolitical and economic concern, and were most thoroughly inscribed with imperial power and influence. Not surprisingly, these areas have generated some of the most innovative scholarship, particularly work that contributes to a new cultural history of U.S.–Latin American relations.
The reader will also note that the editors have chosen to emphasize the period roughly before 1945, although several of the essays extend their chronological focus beyond World War II, some right up to the present (e.g., the contributions by Joseph, Stern, LeGrand, Klubock, Fein, Derby, Rosenberg, Roseberry, and Suescun Pozas). Clearly, the globalization of the planet, stunningly reflected in the internationalization of capital, labor, commodities, and cultural flows that has accelerated in recent decades, merits numerous volumes of its own. Nevertheless, we believe that the conceptual framework elaborated here will usefully inform such a sequel. (Continues...)
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