On Guilt, Ethics, and Metropolitan Views of Latin America

Mark I. Millington, University of Nottingham, UK


My paper presents some reflections on current issues and dilemmas in metropolitan studies of Latin America. These issues and dilemmas derive from the fact that contemporary Latin Americas Studies have a heavy concentration in nations -- particularly the US -- with a history of neocolonial relations with the region. In terms of international authority and intellectual leverage over the production of knowledge in Latin American Studies, researchers in the US are in the main more powerful than Latin American ones. It is not insignificant that a considerable number of voices in postcolonial debates are those of Latin Americans employed in the US academy; in fact, Latin American Studies (that is, research on the region as a whole) is probably more consolidated and more extensive in the US than within the region itself, where, perhaps not surprisingly, primary attention is often paid to national research. As a result, some have argued that the major emphases and directions in contemporary Latin American Studies derive from the dynamics of the US academy and (more broadly) of US social conditions.

As a final introductory point I should add that, although I am addressing the Latin American context, I hope that my paper will be sufficiently broad in its argument to allow for productive, comparative thinking in relation to other postcolonial spaces.

Context for Latin American postcolonial studies in the metropolis

David Harvey has described the conditions of postmodern metropolitan societies and cultures which have given rise to postcolonial studies. He talks of the re-emergence in postmodernity of "a concern in ethics, politics and anthropology for the validity and dignity of "the other"", a phenomenon which has produced a profound shift in the contemporary 'structure of feeling" (Harvey p.9). That shift is partly driven by the influx of peoples to the metropolitan nations which has created internal alterities and new multiracial and multicultural realities. In short order, new kinds of researcher have appeared, whose voices demand to be heard. Those new voices in the metropolitan academy have shifted the focus and discourses of research, and hitherto ignored fractures and neo-colonial exploitations have become impossible to ignore -- new types of knowledge have emerged, challenging metropolitan-centred views and advocating differentiated perspectives.

The other side of this renovation is a crisis of legitimacy in some metropolitan nations, with an acute awareness of accumulated injustice in urgent need of redress. This crisis is frequently accompanied in intellectual circles by a feeling of guilt about past and present economic, political and cultural practices, leading to the rejection of the discriminatory attitudes and actions of national governments, international bodies and transnational capital. But where does guilt leave metropolitan researchers?: critiquing the metropolitan system in which they live and work? --probably; identifying with the other? -- possibly; looking to work on and remedy problems by forging a new, ethical understanding of the peripheral other? -- again probably; looking to mitigate or reduce guilt? -- quite likely. And that "quite likely" indicates the problematic nature of a response based on guilt. For the question is: what kind of relation does guilt set up with those who are seen to be the victims of colonial and neocolonial injustice. Unlike anti-racism, guilt is not a project but a reaction and not necessarily a political one. In practice, guilt may be a form of narcissistic defensiveness, arising out of a fear of being seen and fixed by the other as one would not want to see and fix oneself. The other may present uncomfortable truths about who and what one is; hence, guilt can be a way of defusing the other's critique. To assume guilt may allow metropolitan researchers and radicals to stand in the position of both accuser and accused. In this respect, one might well bear in mind the warning which the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips conveys about the manipulative purpose of guilt: "[Š] in the context of the psychoanalytic session [Š] the patient's use of the word "guilt" [Š] can be treated as an unconscious invitation to the analyst to collude in an assumed consensus of meaning" (Phillips, p.141). Slavoj _i_ek is even more pointed in indicating the potential self-serving evasion of guilt when he says: "we don"t only escape from guilt but also escape into guilt, take refuge in it" (_i_ek, p.38). The point is that the assumption of guilt may be a ploy of self-accusation preceding self-reauthorization -- one applies a scourge before re-emerging as authorized to speak just as before.

And part of that scourge may be the self-imposed restrictions of political correctness -- the excesses of a quest for an absolute ethical standpoint in dealings with the other. But when do ethics become political correctness? One banal answer would be "when ethical concerns spark a reactionary backlash which charges them with political correctness." But although such reactions are part of a trivial posture of derision, they might be turned into a salutary warning of automatism or inflexibility, of a loss of self-critical insight (though that was hardly the initial intention of the charge). An associated (less frequently mentioned) problem is that of theoretical correctness, that is, the slavish following of canonical voices from the theoretical field. In one of Aijaz Ahmad's highly critical accounts of postcolonial studies, this kind of correctness -- the theoretical genuflections in postcolonial discourse -- is diagnosed as an adherence to postmodernity, anti-Marxism and a pantheon of theorists so few number that their names need no mention here.

Postcolonial Studies and Latin America

Until quite recently Latin America has been relatively peripheral to postcolonial studies, and even now the relation is contested. And it is worth looking at some of the arguments of those who contest it. Jorge Klor de Alva, for example, has claimed that the terms colonialism and postcolonialism as understood today in postcolonial studies only properly apply to the marginal, indigenous peoples of Latin America and not to the non-indigenous groups who have dominated Latin American nations and their mainly European and Christian societies since independence from Europe in the 1820s. Another leading Latin American literary and cultural critic, Hugo Achugar, rejects the contribution of postcolonial studies, arguing that it is bringing nothing new. He points out that the desire of postcolonial studies to liberate knowledge production from the categories and ideas produced by colonialism has been a major concern in Latin America for over one hundred years. One of Achugar's main contentions is that it is misleading to construct accounts of Latin American history and culture from the perspective of the colonial past rather than from that of the modern nation. Latin Americans, he says, have long debated their identities and their locations relative to the metropolis on the basis of their emergent nationhood. These identities are already known to be deeply heterogeneous and hybrid -- so postcolonial studies has nothing to add. In Achugar's view much of the impetus for a postcolonial framing of Latin America is driven by the difficulties in the US" current fragmented cultural condition (with a constant influx of immigrants from Latin America) and by the complex history of its civil society. He therefore reads the production of knowledge about Latin America in the US symptomatically as an extension of multicultural projects for transforming US society, an extension erroneously built on an assumed continuity of identity between US Latinos and Latin Americans. At bottom he clearly fears a US-driven panamericanism which would dissolve continental differences.

There is much in Achugar's argument that is persuasive, as well as some things which are symptomatic of the broad and troubled relation between critical thinking in Latin America and the US. Achugar's arguments are a helpful reminder of the care needed in constructing fields of research from outside the region. However, despite the coherence of much that he says, it is striking the degree to which he pushes aside the colonial past: despite the fact that most of Latin America has been independent of Europe for at least one hundred and eighty years, it was subjected to colonial rule for over three hundred years in some places and it is evident that the mere ejection of external authority did not eliminate the structures of colonial rule. Moreover, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries Latin America moved into a neocolonial phase when its nations were independent though dominated economically and also in some ways culturally by France, the UK and then the US. In other words, the basis of an important part of Achugar's argument -- the key significance of the nation over the colony -- is debatable. Moreover, the insistence on national identity against the foreign other overlooks the region's current implication in longstanding processes of globalisation controlled from elsewhere and it also pays scant attention to internal marginalisations based on racial, sexual and class domination. Achugar's pride in the achievements of Latin American thought is well founded but I am sceptical about any too sweeping an assertion of national or regional self-sufficiency -- the intricate interweavings of blindness and insight should make us wary on that score.

Theory from elsewhere

One of the underlying suspicions in Achugar's argument concerns the introduction of critical thinking from outside Latin America, especially when it derives from the superpower which has dominated the region for over a century. There is a nationalist defensiveness in play in his argument -- he draws the intellectual boundaries tightly, and he makes strategic use of the pronouns "us" and "our" (implying the familiar "us and them" stand-off). Now it is entirely appropriate to ask whether theories evolved in a metropolitan academy are appropriate for analysing all the histories and cultures of the world, and in particular whether the term "postcolonial" really can be meaningfully applied to all the nations of Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America, since there is an obvious danger of smoothing out crucial, local differences. Moreover, Achugar is absolutely right to point out how Latin American thought has often been overlooked by metropolitan theorists, involving the crucial issue of whether and how non-metropolitan voices are valued and given authority.

However, there are other pressing aspects in this debate about the balancing of the universal and the local. In our wariness about the homogenising effects of theories from elsewhere it is possible to fall into an excess of attention to local micronarratives, which lack coordination and so are ineffective against dominant worldviews and practices. I think that we need to be alert to the effects of fragmentation, which can disperse critical efforts: small challenges can be absorbed if the global picture is not held firmly in view. While it is vital to be concerned about the effects of theory from elsewhere, it is also important to insist that not all metropolitan theory is the same. Although often justified, charges of "eurocentrism" have sometimes been bandied about loosely, and metropolitan feelings of guilt lead to the risk of accepting those charges too readily. As Adam Sharman has observed, an idea is not eurocentric just because it was thought in Europe. To assume that all thought located in Europe is eurocentric would be excessively determinist. To be eurocentric is to hold European ideas and values as the centre around which the rest of world orbits, as the yardstick by which to judge others. If neocolonial, elite thinking in Latin America can be critiqued from within the region (as it has effectively been), there seems no reason why there cannot be a similar critique of metropolitan thought from within the metropolis.

The Latin American Subaltern Studies Group

It is in this contested terrain that the Latin American Subaltern Studies Group has projected itself. Located in the US academy, it comprises Anglo-Americans and diasporic Latin Americans, who have taken up the lead of the Indian Subaltern Studies Group, founded some years before. The Group has committed itself to an interdisciplinary approach to Latin America ranging across the social sciences and the humanities. And it has needed to do that because it has set itself the immense task of reengaging politically and ethically with Latin America and of reconceiving the diversity of Latin American societies and cultures in order to recuperate those subaltern sectors frequently overlooked -- the very poorest and most marginal, the ethnically and socially excluded. This recuperation involves an engagement with colonial and neocolonial realities which very precisely runs against the stress on the nation which was so central in Achugar. The Group question the way in which the independent nations of Latin America were created so as to safeguard the leadership of creole elites; they stress that from the start that leadership obscured the presence of subalterns so as more effectively to exploit them. The Group's "Founding Statement" also stresses constantly changing contexts for understanding subalternity, in particular the recent redemocratization of Latin America, as well as the new dynamics created by mass media and transnational economic activity. They argue that all these factors point to the need for new ways of thinking and acting politically and that new social movements in Latin America are revealing the limits of traditional democracy and the nation-state. In short, the Group's own project connects with internal pressures in Latin America exerted against the bar on subalterns actively participating in the political process. The crucial contribution of the Group is therefore in fixing analysis on structures of power and its effects of exclusion.

Their "Founding Statement" proposes an ambitious programme but it does not seem to me to supersede all the key dilemmas of the metropolitan researcher in postcolonial studies. Given the frequent historical dearth of direct information about subalterns, the 'statement" offers no real insight into how the Group will go about studying subalternity, nor does it address the difficulties of how to open a dialogue with subalterns particularly in light of the potential dilemma of subaltern resistance to elite conceptualisations and the challenge thereby posed to academic knowledge. In addition, the question of how to represent subalterns in US-based Latin American Studies without their disappearing under the burden of potentially fetishistic or exploitative forms of discursive practice is not anticipated. Gareth Williams pointedly asks how it is possible to create "an effectively "democratic" or "horizontal" transnational cultural politics between First World intellectual and Third World subaltern, in such a way as to question the positional implications of the subaltern's increasing presence in [the US] as a Latinamericanist growth industryŠ" (Williams, p.227). It is not yet clear to what extent the relative positions in respect of political and economic power can be reevaluated and redefined to mitigate the problematic aspects of subaltern politics and culture becoming absorbed by academic networks in the US. In other words, while the Latin American Subaltern Studies Group aims for a respectful, non-totalising politics it remains an open question whether it has devised a strategy to avoid perpetuating the old ideological implications of disciplinary practices that position subalterns as "peripheral" to the theoretical centrality of the metropolitan academy. There is an evident risk of subalterns becoming abstracted and commodified within the discourses of the academy, and of their potential radical agency being appropriated as the source of the Group's own resistance to academic liberalism. Indeed, Williams goes so far as to accuse the Group of indulging a fantasy of solidarity with necessarily inaccessible and silenced peripheral subjects. Such a charge seems somewhat harsh, particularly given the absence of any counter-proposal from Williams for an engagement with the complexity of the Latin American scene. What the Subaltern Studies Group have risked proposing is a radical reconception of Latin American Studies, seeking to expand its analytical range and to prioritise attention to the broad political and economic factors affecting not only the region but also the very foundations of its own institutional base.

Projects for constructing knowledge of the Other always have the potential for collapsing that Other into the Same. But it would be misguided to allow such a danger to disable all efforts to evolve an ethical method capable of producing rigorous knowledge. The question, as always, is how to represent the Other without colonising it. What are metropolitan researchers to do? I see the task as double: it is as much to do with working with and reconceiving postcolonial realities as with decolonising thinking within the metropolis. The Latin American Subaltern Studies Group is trying to do both of those things. Moreover, I think that it is not the case that metropolitan researchers will do exactly what non-metropolitan researchers do; there may be overlap, but there is a pressing need for a variety of perspectives and for the avoidance of the stultifying effects of a risk-free correctness. I therefore take it as given that it is not enough simply to listen, however actively, though listening is certainly crucial. What Achugar's doubts about postcolonial studies make clear is the need for metropolitan researchers to pay heed to Latin American thought and theory, though we should not imagine that that thought is always simply homegrown -- it often relies on the hybridisation of ideas from elsewhere. Above all, to take Latin American thought seriously and work with it presupposes perceiving and treating the other as a fully-fledged agent of knowledge and being committed to entering into dialogue with that agent. However, paying heed to Latin American thought may be a good deal more straightforward than working with subalternity. Bibliography

Achugar, Hugo. 1997. "Leones, cazadores e historiadores: A propósito de las poíticas de la memoria y del conocimiento." In Revista Iberoamericana 180, 379-87.

Ahmad, Aijaz. 1997. "The Politics of Literary Postcoloniality." In Padmini Mongia (ed), Contemporary Postcolonial Theory: A Reader. London: Arnold.

Harvey, David. 1989. The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. Oxford and Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell.

Klor de Alva, Jorge. 1995. "The Postcolonization of the (Latin) American Experience: A Reconsideration of "Colonialism", "Postcolonialism" and "Mestizajes"." In Gyan Prakash (ed), After Colonialism, Imperial Histories and Postcolonial Displacements. Princeton: Princeton UP, 241-75.

Latin American Subaltern Studies Group. 1995. "Founding Statement." In John Beverley et al (eds), The Postmodernism Debate in Latin America. Durham and London: Duke UP, 135-46.

Phillips, Adam. 1994. On Flirtation. London: Faber.

Sharman, Adam. 1994. "Foucault and a Guilt-Edged Europe." In Renaissance and Modern Studies 37, 104-20.

Williams, Gareth. 1996. "The Fantasies of Cultural Exchange in Latin American Subaltern Studies." In Georg M. Gugelberger (ed), The Real Thing: Testimonial Discourse and Latin America. Durham and London: Duke UP, 225-53.

I. E., Slavoj. Enjoy Your Symptom: Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out. New York and London: Routledge.

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Last modified: 18 May 2001