Trans-Americanity: Subaltern Modernities, Global Coloniality, and the Cultures of Greater Mexico

Trans-Americanity: Subaltern Modernities, Global Coloniality, and the Cultures of Greater Mexico

by José David Saldívar

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A founder of U.S.-Mexico border studies, José David Saldívar is a leading figure in efforts to expand the scope of American studies. In Trans-Americanity, he advances that critical project by arguing for a transnational, antinational, and "outernational" paradigm for American studies. Saldívar urges Americanists to adopt a


A founder of U.S.-Mexico border studies, José David Saldívar is a leading figure in efforts to expand the scope of American studies. In Trans-Americanity, he advances that critical project by arguing for a transnational, antinational, and "outernational" paradigm for American studies. Saldívar urges Americanists to adopt a world-system scale of analysis. "Americanity as a Concept," an essay by the Peruvian sociologist Aníbal Quijano and Immanuel Wallerstein, the architect of world-systems analysis, serves as a theoretical touchstone for Trans-Americanity. In conversation not only with Quijano and Wallerstein, but also with the theorists Gloria Anzaldúa, John Beverley, Ranajit Guha, Walter D. Mignolo, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Saldívar explores questions of the subaltern and the coloniality of power, emphasizing their location within postcolonial studies. Analyzing the work of José Martí, Sandra Cisneros, Toni Morrison, Arundhati Roy, and many other writers, he addresses concerns such as the "unspeakable" in subalternized African American, U.S. Latino and Latina, Cuban, and South Asian literature; the rhetorical form of postcolonial narratives; and constructions of subalternized identities. In Trans-Americanity, Saldívar demonstrates and makes the case for Americanist critique based on a globalized study of the Américas.

Editorial Reviews

Jelena Šesnić

“[An] ambitious undertaking. . . . We thus find on the pages of the book and in Saldívar's readings interesting couplings of trans-American texts, or texts that precisely in their juxtaposition, rather than standing on their own, testify to the process of trans-Americanity and show us an inkling of a larger literary system extending beyond the realm of any one nation-state, in particular the USA.”
The Latin American Review of Books EC

“[T]his book… captures the visionary post-national mood that has imbued postcolonial studies with an infectious enthusiasm. Saldívar is a respected scholar in the field and this work argues for a transnational, indeed anti-national, approach to American studies…. It is a precarious, but invigorating, path to be following and we do not know where it leads.”
Rocky Mountain Review - Paul B. Wickelson
“Saldívar is one of the boldest and most important scholars in American Studies today. Like few others, he engages what Martí calls Nuestra América, and for that he should be congratulated. Trans-Americanity is well worth reading.”
Journal of American Culture - Seth Horton
“Saldivar is one of the more interesting contemporary scholars in the field of American Studies. . .. [A]n excitingly inventive book that is sure to generate new avenues of scholarly inquiry.”
Journal of American Studies - Julie Minich
Trans-Americanity is extraordinarily ambitious in its scope. . . .  By providing conceptual linkages between authors and texts that are rarely read or taught together, Saldívar provides a critical map for scholars seeking to transnationalize American and US Latina/o studies.”
American Quarterly - Karen Mary Davalos
Trans-Americanity’s seven chapters, useful preface, and experimental ending offer broad intellectual coverage of Latin America, South Asia, and the Americas from the nineteenth to the twenty-first centuries.”
From the Publisher
"Trans-Americanity is a magnificent, visionary book. I cannot think of another scholar working today who has helped to instantiate new fields and new lines of inquiry in the manner of José David Saldívar. He is an unusually generous and curious scholar, one who is perfectly willing to rethink earlier assumptions, appreciate the insights of his critics, and read broadly across disciplines. These strengths contribute to what I believe will be an extremely influential text, one that will be widely taught and carefully reviewed."—Mary Pat Brady, author of Extinct Lands, Temporal Geographies: Chicana Literature and the Urgency of Space

"Intent on discerning the common concerns of subaltern studies, global coloniality, and transmodernity, José David Saldívar examines persistent motifs and literary themes in the imaginative literature of Greater Mexico and South Asia. Individually and collectively, the minoritized writings that he discusses articulate new epistemological grounds for critiquing a transmodern world governed by global capitalism and new forms of coloniality. Saldívar advocates an 'Americanity' that opens up the idea of America to contexts well beyond the United States, Latin America, and the Western Hemisphere."—Donald E. Pease, author of The New American Exceptionalism

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Duke University Press Books
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New Americanists
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Subaltern Modernities, Global Coloniality, and the Cultures of Greater Mexico
By José David Saldívar

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2012 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-5064-4

Chapter One

Unsettling Race, Coloniality, and Caste in Anzaldúa's Borderlands/La Frontera, Martínez's Parrot in the Oven, and Roy's The God of Small Things

What is termed globalization is the cultural process that began with the constitution of America and colonial/modern Eurocentered capitalism as a new global power.—ANÍBAL QUIJANO, "Coloniality of Power, Eurocentrism, and Latin America" (2000)

This comparative chapter on Chicano/a and South Asian narratives and global coloniality has a somewhat sweeping character. It is a preliminary attempt to link pensamiento fronterizo (border thinking) in Chicano/a Studies and realist interpellations of the subject and the politics of unsettling the coloniality of power on a planetary scale. Pensamiento fronterizo emerges from the critical reflections of (undocumented) immigrants, migrants, bracero/a workers, refugees, campesinos, women, and children on the major structures of dominance and subordination of our times. Thus envisaged, pensamiento fronterizo is the name for a new geopolitically located thinking from Greater Mexico's borderlands and against the new imperialism of the United States. Pensamiento fronterizo is a necessary and affiliated tool for thinking about what the Peruvian historical social scientist Aníbal Quijano calls the "coloniality of power" and identity at the intersections (los intersticios) of our local historias and the double logics of capitalism and the cultures of U.S. imperialism.

Quijano's coloniality of power, I argue, can help us begin to account for the entangled relations of power between the global division of labor, racial and ethnic hierarchy, identity formation, and Eurocentric epistemologies. Moreover, the coloniality of power can help us trace the continuous forms of hegemonic dominance produced by colonial cultures and structures. As I use it, the coloniality of power is fundamentally a structuring process of identity, ethnicity, political race, experience, and knowledge production that articulates geo-strategic locations and subaltern (minor) inscriptions.

My emphasis will be on late-twentieth-century postcolonial narratives (Chicano/a and South Asian) and early-twenty-first century realist theories about identity, interculturality, and minoritized studies. So I will begin by discussing three of the most important paradigms of minoritized study as forms of culture that have shared experiences by virtue of their antagonistic relationship to the hegemonic culture, which seeks to marginalize and interpellate them as minor. Then I will examine the issue of border thinking and braided languaging practices in Gloria Anzaldúa's celebrated Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987) and Victor Martínez's National Book Award–winning novel Parrot in the Oven: Mi Vida (1996). Last, I will speculate on the issue of ethnic kinship trouble in Arundhati Roy's Booker Prize–winning novel The God of Small Things (1996).

Why propose a cross-genealogical (U.S. Latino/a and South Asian) treatment of differently structured histories of border and diaspora identity and minoritized writing? I hope the answer to this will emerge as I go along and, indeed, in the rest of the book, designed as it is to encourage in-depth, cross-cultural comparisons within the matrix of globalization's coloniality of power. But I begin by asserting some of the potential meanings and nuances of the minor as they have appeared on the scene of U.S. subaltern studies in the past fifteen years.

The Politics of "Becoming Minor"

In a landmark conference at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1987 the literary theorists Abdul JanMohamed and David Lloyd (1990, 1) called for a radical examination of the "nature and context of minority discourse." JanMohamed and Lloyd were specifically interested in rethinking the relationship between a "minor literature" and the canonical literatures of the majority. Schematically, their theory and practice of minority discourse involves "drawing out solidarities in the forms of similarities between modes of repression and struggles that all minorities experience separately but precisely as minorities" (JanMohamed and Lloyd 1990, 9). Their project of minority discourse fundamentally supplemented Gilles Deleuze's and Félix Guattari's theorizing of a minor literature—a literature so termed by its "opposition to those which define canonical writing" (quoted in JanMohamed and Llyod 1990, 381). A minor literature entails, for them, "the questioning or destruction of the concept of identity and identification ... and a profound suspicion of narratives of reconciliation and unification" (JanMohamed and Lloyd 1990, 381). In other words, JanMohamed and Lloyd maintained that a "minority discourse should neither fall back on ethnicity or gender as an a priori essence nor rush into calculating some 'nonhumanist' celebration of diversity for its own sake" (JanMohamed and Lloyd 1990, 9). While some realists might take issue with their dismissal of the cognitive work of our identities and their over-reliance on the work of Deleuze and Guattari (the erasure of the cognitive aspects of racialized minority experiences and identities), the political project of minority discourse remains on target. "Becoming 'minor,'" they write, "is not a question of essence ... but a question of position: a subject-position that in the final analysis can be defined only in political terms" (JanMohamed and Lloyd 1990, 9).

My sense of the future of minoritized studies within the context of our globalized coloniality owes much to the theoretical work of my colleagues at Berkeley, but it does not quite reproduce the nuances of how JanMohamed and Lloyd use the term "minor" (following the famous study of Kafka by Deleuze and Guattari [2002]). In my recent cross-genealogical work in Chicano/a and Americanity studies otherwise; on José Martí as a subaltern modernist; on the Cuban testimonio of Miguel Barnet and Esteban Montejo; and on "Greater Mexico's" border modernism of Américo Paredes, for example, I have used the terms "subaltern" and "minor" to cast doubt not so much on our "narratives of identity" as on the mainline narratives of the major, mainstream, and hegemonic (see Saldivar 1996, 2000a, 2000b, 2001). My emergent minority studies follows the lead of the Modernity/ Coloniality Research Program (especially Walter Mignolo, Enrique Dussel, and Quijano) and the South Asian Subaltern Studies Group, particularly the work of historian Dipesh Chakrabarty. As Chakrabarty (2000, 101) suggests, the minor "describes relationships to the past that the rationality of the [mainstream] historian's methods necessarily makes 'minor' or 'inferior' as something 'irrational' in the course of, and as a result of, its own operation." The cultural and political work of the subaltern or minoritized historian, in Chakrabarty's words, is to "try to show how the capacity (of the modern person) to historicize actually depends on his or her ability to participate in nonmodern relationships to the past that are made subordinate in the moment of historicization. History writing assumes plural ways of being in the world."

This brings me to the third and most recent sense of minoritized studies: U.S. minority studies as a comparative "epistemic project" formulated by Satya Mohanty, Paula Moya, Michael Hames-García, and Linda Martín Alcoff. Against purely skeptical (postmodern and poststructuralist) attitudes toward identity, ethnic studies, and experience, they argue for a strong defense of critical multiculturalism and minority studies based on what they call "realist" views. (As shorthand for this realist-inspired group of minority studies, I focus on what follows on the collective project Reclaiming Identity [Moya and Hames-García 2000].)

What Moya and Hames-García have done is to tease out—using Satya Mohanty's iconic realist view of identity—a new way to do literary, cultural, and comparative ethnic studies in the United States. Reclaiming Identity is at the very center of what the authors, after Mohanty (1997, xii), call a "post-positivist realism," an engaging method of philosophical, cultural, and literary interpretation that situates "identity" in both a "radical universalist" and a "multiculturalist" worldview. Briefly, Reclaiming Identity, like Mohanty's Literary Theory and the Claims of History (1997) and Moya's Learning from Experience (2002), is a sustained, eloquent, and rich exemplification of this innovative method, practice, and pedagogy. Moya puts the collective project this way: the realist view of identity can provide "a reconstructed universalist justification for the kind of work being done by ... ethnic studies scholars" by supporters of multicultural education, as well as for the salience of the identities around which such minoritized programs are organized (Moya, 2).

Although the Reclaiming Identity project gracefully eschews righteous polemic, the work in which its authors are engaged demonstrates beyond dispute what a critically focused research collective and interdisciplinary project—that is, philosophy, social-science theory, and the philosophy of science—can bring to literary studies proper. Indeed, Mohanty ends his erudite Literary Theory and the Claims of History by calling for a new kind of literary studies. "We should go beyond the bounds of a purely text-based literary theory to engage more directly the findings of the various scientific disciplines.... We [need] to make serious contact with the growing knowledge about the natural and social world and come to terms with the empirical implications of our claims" (Mohanty 1997, 251–52). Thus envisaged, for Mohanty, Moya, and Hames-García literary theory must be a site in which scholars and activists "examine, debate, and specify the social implications of advances in the natural and social sciences" (Mohanty 1997, 252).

Ranging across issues involving philosophy, literature, and social theory, the essayists explore realist accounts of identity and experience by making linkages among social location, experience, epistemic privilege, and cultural identity. All contemplate a world where cultural identity is both socially constructed and substantively real. By attempting to transcend the limits of postmodernism/poststructuralism and essentialism, the authors in Reclaiming Identity take seriously that (1) identities are real; and (2) experiences are epistemically crucial. As Alcoff (2000, 312) emphasizes, Reclaiming Identity "is an act of taking back ... the term realism in order to maintain the epistemic significance of identity."

Because I am working under some spatial constraints, I focus in the remainder of this section on the essays by Mohanty, Moya, Hames- Garcia, and Alcoff. Reclaiming Identity blasts off with Mohanty's minoritized philosphical exegesis of Toni Morrison's celebrated novel Beloved. "The community sought" in the novel, he argues, "involves as its essence a moral and imaginative expansion of oneself." Moreover, Morrison's "political vision of the oppressed ... provides the context" in which her characters challenge each other's views "on the limits of mother-love" in specifically historical, gendered, and ethno-racial terms. Thus envisaged, Morrison's character's perspectives, Mohanty suggests, are "not only affective but also epistemic" (Mohanty 2000, 236). By reading Morrison's Beloved (1987), many of us are therefore put in the position of characters in the novel, like Paul D, who have inadequate understandings of the social world they live in. Briefly, Morrison teaches us in Beloved, among other things, how to read infanticide and the social roles of slave mothers, thereby widening the scope of the moral debates about slavery and the gendered division of labor in the modern-world systems' analysis of capitalism. At the end of chapter 5, I return to this idea and discuss Morrison's postcolonial Beloved in terms of political race and lo real maravilloso (marvelous realism).

Do slave mothers, like Morrison's Sethe, have a "special knowledge" (Mohanty 2000, 236)? Can a realist account of identity spell out the claim that members of a diaspora often have a privileged, albeit sharable, knowledge about their social world? What are the valuable implications that the epistemic privilege of the politically oppressed and socially underprivileged people have? These are the major interpretive questions Mohanty grapples with in his provocative essay. If diaspora implicitly refers to an identity, and Morrison elaborates it in narratological and descriptive terms, Mohanty argues persuasively that readers of Beloved have been slow to see how Morrison elaborates diasporic identity in unavoidably moral and theoretical terms. Thus, instead of seeing Morrison's characters as "empty signifiers" and therefore dismissing her take on identities on the grounds that they are, after all, rhetorically constructed and hence "spurious," Mohanty argues that identities in Beloved are not only descriptive and affective but also evaluative and epistemic. Hence, realists need to distinguish between different kinds of constructedness and at the same time see the politics of identities as enmeshed in competing social and ethicaltheoretical worldviews. Last, Mohanty sets the Reclaiming Identity project in motion by arguing for a notion of "epistemic privilege": that our experiences have real cognitive content and that deconstructive suspicions of experience are unwarranted.

Building on Mohanty's realist view of identity and his ideas about epistemic privilege, Moya and Hames-García complement and enlarge the realist view of the project by reading Cherríe Moraga's Loving in the War Years (1983) and Michael Nava's The Hidden Law (1992) as contributing to understandings of how the minoritized "other" can change us and how issues that challenge identity such as heterogeneity, multiplicity, and hybridity do not have to be seen as separate entities but can be seen as "mutually constitutive." If Moraga, as Moya (2000, 69) suggests, "understands identities as relational and grounded in the historically produced social categories that constitute social location" and not as trapped in a cyborgian "signifying function" à la Donna Haraway (1991), Nava's work, Hames-García argues, "demands that we ... take seriously the moral implications" of Henry Ríos's experiences. For Hames-García (2000, 113), taking Henry's experiences seriously does not make him a "strategic essentialist," à la Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (1988a); rather, Henry bases his claim on the "moral sense of his right to participate in a Chicano community on the basis of his cultural upbringing and experience of racialization" (Hames-García 2000, 113).

In the book's conclusion, "Who's Afraid of Identity Politics?," Alcoff carefully defends the new post-postivist accounts of identity by discussing how approaches to the self developed by Hegel, Freud, Foucault, and Althusser have influenced the most important post-contemporary conceptions of identity and subjectification. The answer to the problems of essentialism and anti-essentialism, Alcoff argues, is not Wendy Brown's theory of "wounded attachments" (Brown 1995), where the cycle of blame is never transcended, but new, better formulations of identity produced by the essayists in Reclaiming Identity. Near her essay's ending, Alcoff (2000, 335) writes, "To say that we have an identity is just to say that we have a location in social space, a hermeneutic horizon that is both grounded in a location and an opening or site from which we attempt to know the world. Understood in this way, it is incoherent to view identities as something we would be better off without."

Given this précis of what I take to be one of the central aims of the Reclaiming Identity project, I end this section by raising two issues for further interrogation. The first concerns the issue of identity in relationship to what Quijano and Wallerstein call "Americanity" and what Quijano, Mignolo, Agustín Laó-Montes, Ramón Grosfoguel, and others are theorizing as "the coloniality of power."

As I noted in the preface, Quijano and Wallerstein (1992) argue that the Américas were fundamental to the formation of the modern (colonial) world-system and that Americanity is a fundamental element of modernity. For our purposes, Quijano and Wallerstein identify four new categories that originated in the so-called discovery of the Americas. They are coloniality, ethnicity, racism, and the concept of newness itself. My first hesitation with the Reclaiming Identity project thus has to do with the way most of the contributors are generally silent about our identities in relationship to what Quijano and Wallerstein grapple with in their work—namely, coloniality.


Excerpted from Trans-Americanity by José David Saldívar Copyright © 2012 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

José David Saldívar is Professor of Comparative Literature and Chair and Director of the Undergraduate Program in Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity at Stanford University. His books include Border Matters: Remapping American Cultural Studies, as well as The Dialectics of Our America: Genealogy, Cultural Critique, and Literary History and Criticism in the Borderlands: Studies in Chicano Literature, Culture, and Ideology (co-edited with Héctor Calderón), both also published by Duke University Press.

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