The Exhaustion of Difference: The Politics of Latin American Cultural Studies

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The conditions for thinking about Latin America as a regional unit in transnational academic discourse have shifted over the past decades. In The Exhaustion of Difference Alberto Moreiras ponders the ramifications of this shift and draws on deconstruction, Marxian theory, philosophy, political economy, subaltern studies, literary criticism, and postcolonial studies to interrogate the minimal conditions for an effective critique of knowledge given the recent transformations of the contemporary world.
What, asks Moreiras, is the function of critical reason in the present moment? What is regionalistic knowledge in the face of globalization? Can regionalistic knowledge be an effective tool for a critique of contemporary reason? What is the specificity of Latin Americanist reflection and how is it situated to deal with these questions? Through examinations of critical regionalism, restitutional excess, the historical genealogy of Latin American subalternism, testimonio literature, and the cultural politics of magical realism, Moreiras argues that while cultural studies is increasingly institutionalized and in danger of reproducing the dominant ideologies of late capitalism, it is also ripe for giving way to projects of theoretical reformulation. Ultimately, he claims, critical reason must abandon its allegiance to aesthetic-historicist projects and the destructive binaries upon which all cultural theories of modernity have been constructed.
The Exhaustion of Difference makes a significant contribution to the rethinking of Latin American cultural studies.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
The Exhaustion of Difference ‘pushes Latin Americanist fulfilment against its limits.’ The limits radiate out into the networks of subalternities, locationisms, Area Studies/Cultural Studies, globalization and transculturation—and beyond. In these pages high theory is at home with Latin American intellectual history and deft textual analysis.”—Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, author of A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present

“With extreme clarity of argument and intellectual sophistication, this book subjects the field’s epistemic diagram to a radical questioning that upsets the sociological and literary conventionalism of Latin American thinking on identity and difference, globalization and locality, and culture and politics. The rigor and positional force with which this book deploys its polemical apparatus will alter the academic pathways of reflection on Latin America.”—Nelly Richard, Editor, Revista de Crítica Cultural

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822327240
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 9/28/2001
  • Series: Post-Contemporary Interventions Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 368
  • Sales rank: 1,211,674
  • Product dimensions: 5.82 (w) x 8.96 (h) x 1.13 (d)

Meet the Author

Alberto Moreiras is Anne and Robert Bass Professor of Romance Studies and Literature at Duke University. He is also coeditor of the Journal of Spanish Cultural Studies and coeditor of Nepantla: Views from South.

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Read an Excerpt

The exhaustion of difference

The politics of Latin American cultural studies
By Alberto Moreiras

Duke University Press

ISBN: 0-8223-2724-4

Chapter One

Global Fragments

The Immigrant Imaginary

James Petras and Morris Morley's 1990 harsh indictment of Latin American institutional intellectuals is unfair only insofar as it limits itself to Latin American intellectuals. In defining them as those who "write for and work within the confines of other institutional intellectuals, their overseas patrons [i. e., funding institutions], their international conferences, and as political ideologues establishing the boundaries for the liberal political class" (US Hegemony 152), Petras and Morley are in fact mentioning the general conditions of academic thinking, at least in the West and in Western-dominated areas. Any conceivable counterpractice in that respect is a practice of negation and resistance, and thus it is still determined by what it negates. Can reflection on current political constraints give way to reflection on political possibilities? Some of those possibilities are to be found in the space afforded by the apparent contradiction between tendential globalization and regional theory.

Area studies were never conceived to be a part of antiglobal theory. On the contrary, as Vicente Rafael retells the story, "since the end of World War II, area studies have been integrated into larger institutional networks, ranging fromuniversities to foundations, that have made possible the reproduction of a North American style of knowing, one that is ordered toward the proliferation and containment of Orientalisms and their critiques" ("Cultures" 91). The project followed an integrationist logic whereby "the 'conservative' function of area studies, that of segregating differences, is made to coincide with their 'progressive' function, that of systematizing the relationship among differences within a flexible set of disciplinary practices under the supervision of experts bound by the common pursuit of total knowledge" (96). A secret imperial project comes then to join the more apparently epistemic one: "the disciplined study of others ultimately works to maintain a national order thought to be coterminous with a global one" (97).

For Rafael, the practice of area studies as traditionally understood is today threatened by the arrival of what he calls "an immigrant imaginary" (98), one of the immediate consequences of which is to problematize the spatial relationships between center and periphery, between home and abroad, between the locality of knowledge production and its site of intervention: "Since decolonization, and in the face of global capitalism, mass migrations, flexible labor regimes, and spreading telecommunications technologies, it has not been possible for area studies to be, or merely to be, a colonial undertaking that presumes the metropole's control over its discrete administrative units" (103). U.S. Latin Americanism is certainly conditioned, although perhaps not yet to a sufficient degree, by the drastic demographic changes and the massive Latin American immigration to the country in recent decades. U.S. Latin Americanism can no longer pretend merely to be an epistemic concern with the geographic other south of the border. Instead, the borderlands have moved northward and within. The immigrant imaginary must necessarily affect an epistemic practice that used to be based on a national-imperial need to know the other, insofar as that other is now pretty much ourselves, or an important part of ourselves. As Rafael puts it, "the category of the immigrant-in transit, caught between nation-states, unsettled and potentially uncanny-gives one pause, forcing one to ask about the possibility of a scholarship that is neither colonial nor liberal nor indigenous, yet constantly enmeshed in all these states" (107).

This hybrid scholarship has been theorized by a number of critics under the name of postcolonial studies, even though postcoloniality refers within contemporary university discourse primarily to a history that is not synchronic with the history of Latin America. To speak of a "postcolonial Latin Americanism" is neither to claim an equal history for diverse parts of the world nor to refer to the nineteenth century, which would be the "properly" postcolonial period for most of the region. As an adjective, postcolonial refers here more to a scholarly practice than to its object. Postcolonial Latin Americanism is a comparatively useful, if not literally exact, term, used in reference to a scholarly practice in times of globalization, to a Latin Americanism informed by the immigrant imaginary-by the Latin American "within" university discourse. By announcing or affirming a split within metropolitan discourse, postcolonial Latin Americanism radically opens itself to encompass university discourse in Latin America as well as in other areas of the world. Postcolonial Latin Americanism, by adopting the immigrant imaginary, becomes a cosmopolitan discursive practice where location needs to be interrogated every time, since it can no longer be taken for granted. It vindicates itself because the conditions for thinking in the present are such that a responsible academic practice must seek necessary articulations between region of study and region of enunciation in a context defined by globalization. Insofar as this academic practice arises out of a politics of location or, rather, out of a counterpolitics of location, since location was already thoroughly inscribed in previous practices; and insofar as this counterpolitics fixates upon differential localities of enunciation in their difference with respect to the smooth space of hegemonic, metropolitan enunciation, postcolonial Latin Americanism conceives of itself as a form of antiglobal epistemic practice geared toward the articulation or the production of difference through the expression of an always irreducible if shifting distance from the global.

The immigrant imaginary thus seems to open the possibility of Latin Americanist counterimaginings to historically constituted Latin Americanism. Through them Latin Americanist reflection becomes an instance of antiglobal theory, insofar as it opposes the imperial formation of knowledge (and its neoimperial variations) that has accompanied the move of capital toward universal subsumption in globalization. But what is to be decided is whether antiglobality can remain strong enough to counter effectively the controlling force of historically constituted Latin Americanism as it moves to reconstitute itself through the immigrant imaginary, by taming it and reducing it to a contingent position or to a set of mobile positions within new social regimes of rule. In other words, there is no guarantee that the immigrant difference will not be ultimately assimilated-indeed, has not already been assimilated-by the global apparatus and its constant recourse to the homogenization of difference in and through its very preservation. Perhaps homogenizing disciplinary developments and the new role of the global university in the reproduction and servicing of the global system are not really in opposition to the academic theorization of heterogenizing, singularizing drives. Perhaps heterogenization is just the other or presentable side of homogenization, or in a sense necessary to it, necessary for the further expansion of global homogenization, a form of self-produced feed. In any case, even if homogenization and heterogenization are not really antinomical but stand in some sort of dialectical relationship, the relationship between them, as actually existing, remains an important site of political engagement. From the point of view of intellectual institutional politics, to the extent to which they relate to global citizenship today, such a relationship might appear to be the proper region for reflection on new kinds of work in what used to be called area studies.

Two Kinds of Latin Americanism

In the middle of the 1995 debate concerning CIA involvement in the Central American counterinsurgency apparatus, the New York Times published an article by Catherine S. Manegold that might be taken to stand as an archetypal example of the way the Western imaginary regulates and controls its engagement with alterity in post-Cold War times: "the most improbable of intimacies" ("Rebel" A1). The article embodies a powerful although fundamentally reactive narrative whose subtext sets Latin Americanist solidarity work against the backdrop of obscure jungle desire or some heart-of-darkness fascination: "Jennifer Harbury was 39 when she first saw Efrain Bamaca Velazquez. She was a lawyer working on a book about the women in Guatemala's rebel army, following an idiosyncratic path that led her deeper and deeper inside a well-hidden, war-hardened society of guerrilla fighters. She had traveled from Texas to Mexico City to the jungles of western Guatemala in her research. She was there to tell their story. She made no pretense of objectivity. She did not see gray and did not want to" (A1).

Harbury's guerrilla romance with the younger and beautiful Maya comandante, described as "a fawn" in subliminar allusion to Walt Disney's Bambi, becomes a plausible and tendentially exhaustive explanation for an entanglement in social and political struggles that would otherwise seem utterly inappropriate for a graduate of Harvard Law School: "The prospect of death ordered his days. A fear of banality ordered hers" (A1). Death appears as the figure of some exotic authenticity, and simultaneously therefore as the source of a perverse longing-a longing for negation that will not take itself for what it is. Through Harbury's paradigmatic story, an American citizen's engagement with Central American revolutionary social movements is shown to amount to little more than a deluded orientalism of the heart: "Ms. Harbury tells it as a love story, her first, though she was married once before to a Texas lawyer whom she lived with only briefly" (A5). Orientalism of the heart is undoubtedly the mythical underside of the kind of global politics the CIA itself, together with the FBI, the DEA, and other U.S. law-enforcement agencies, would rightfully pursue, according to their criteria, for higher reasons involving global security and transnational terrorism. Within this discourse, orientalism of the heart comes close to being the only possible explanation for an opening to alterity in global times. Through Harbury, in Manegold's account, an entire class of Latin Americanist solidarity workers and left-wing intellectuals, as well asmelodramatic citizens in general, are indicted at the level of affect: their desire, it can always be said, is only obscure love and therefore neither epistemologically nor politically viable: "She made no pretense of objectivity. She did not see gray and did not want to."

What Kenneth Frampton has called the "optimizing thrust of universal civilization" is no longer dependent on the imperial projections of this or that national formation, or of a given set of them (Modern Architecture 327). Civilization instead follows the flow of capital into a tendential saturation of the planetary field. Totality affects metropolitan self-understanding because it affects peripheral or intermediate localities by constantly reducing their claims to a differential positioning regarding universal standardization. Global difference may indeed be in an accelerated process toward global identity, to be accomplished by means of some monstrous, final dialectical synthesis after which there will be no possibility of negation. And yet negation occurs, if only as a residual instance doomed to self-understanding through death. "The prospect of death ordered his days," says Manegold of the Maya comandante, as if only death could compensate for, or at least present a limit to, the desperate banality of the global standard.

Latin Americanism is the set or the sum total of engaged representations providing a viable knowledge of the Latin American object of enunciation. I take the notion of "engaged representation" from Stephen Greenblatt. Commenting about early European responses to the New World, Greenblatt remarks: "The responses with which I am concerned-indeed the only responses I have been able to identify-are not detached scientific assessments but what I would call engaged representations, representations that are relational, local, and historically contingent. Their overriding interest is not knowledge of the other but practice upon the other; and ... the principal faculty involved in generating these representations is not reason but imagination" (Marvelous Possessions 12-13). Greenblatt's observation also applies to later Latin Americanist representations. In terms of engagement, Latin Americanist desire can claim to have a powerful association with death in at least two ways: in the first, Latin Americanism, as an epistemic machine in charge of representing the Latin American difference, seeks its own death by integrating its particular knowledge into what Robert B. Hall, in one of the founding documents of area studies as we know them today, called "the fundamental totality" and "the essential unity" of all knowledge (Area Studies 2; 4). In this first sense, Latin Americanist knowledge aspires to a particular form of disciplinary power that it inherits from the imperialist state apparatus. It works as an instantiation of global agency, insofar as it ultimately wants to deliver its findings into some totality of allegedly neutral, universal knowledge of the world in all its differences and identities. Born out of an ideology of cultural difference, its fundamental thrust is to capture the Latin American difference in order to release it into the global epistemic grid. It therefore works as a machine of homogenization, even there where it understands itself in terms of promoting or preserving difference. Through Latin Americanist representation, Latin American differences are controlled and homogenized and put at the service of global representation. This is so also in the extreme cases where the homogenization of subaltern difference must go through the active production of othering or abjection. Latin Americanist knowledge, understood in this first sense, ultimately seeks its own death as it endeavors to transfigure itself into its own negation and to dissolve into the panopticon.

In a second way, a Latin Americanism that is no longer a purely imperial "practice upon the other," in Greenblatt's sense, but that has a claim at some internal subversion through its new postcolonial imaginary can also conceivably expect to produce itself as an antirepresentational, anticonceptual apparatus whose main function would be that of arresting the tendential progress of epistemic representation toward total articulation. In this sense, Latin Americanism works primarily not as a machine of epistemic homogenization but potentially against it as a disruptive force, or a wrench, in the epistemolog apparatus, an antidisciplinary instance or Hegelian "savage beast" whose desire does not go through an articulation of difference or identity but instead goes through their constant disarticulations, through a radical appeal to an epistemic outside, to an exteriority that will not be turned into a mere fold of the imperial self. In this sense, Latin Americanism seeks an articulation with alternative localities of experience in order to forman alliance against historically constituted Latin Americanist representation and its attendant sociopolitical effects.

In the first case, Latin Americanism aims toward its own dissolution in its apotheosic completion: the day when Latin Americanist representation will finally be able to release itself into the final, apocalyptic integration of universal knowledge. In the second case, Latin Americanism engages its own death by operating a thorough critique of its own representational strategies regarding the Latin American epistemic object. But this critical, antirepresentational practice depends on its previous formation and can be taken to be nothing but its negative or its very form of negation. It could even be argued that this critical, second kind of Latin Americanist practice only comes into focus precisely at the moment when the first Latin Americanism starts to offer the early signs of its radical success, which is also its dissolution as such. However, this may not entirely be due to the first Latin Americanism's own merit. Something else has happened, in relation to which the immigrant imaginary is only a symptom: a social change that has radically altered the stakes in the game of knowledge production.


Excerpted from The exhaustion of difference by Alberto Moreiras Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: Conditions of Latin Americanist Critique
1. Global Fragments
2. Negative Globality and Critical Regionalism
3. Theoretical Fictions and Fatal Conceits
4. Restitution and Appropriation
5. The National Popular in Antonio Candido and Jorge Luis Borges
6. The End of Magical Realism: Jose Maria Arguedas's Passionate Signifier
7. The Aura of Testimonio
8. The Order of Order: On the Reluctant Culturalism of Anti-Subalternist Critiques
9. Hybridity and Double Consciousness
Works Cited
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