Banality of Local / Global Knowledge in Convulsive London.

By Fernando Gómez Herrero, fgh2173@gmail.com


Initial Quotes.

For history teaches us that Britain has a track record of underestimating Latin America and neglecting its opportunities. It is this neglect that the current British government is determined to address.

In the eighteenth century British politicians were enticed by the wealth and natural riches of the hemisphere, but were reluctant to weigh in on the side of independence. They saw the region as a piece on a geopolitical chessboard dominated by rivalry with France and Spain, rather than on its own merits.

For much of the twentieth century Latin America was considered to lie within a sphere of influence outside Britain’s traditional interests. It was thought to be predominantly a concern for the United States, and over the last twenty years there has been a steady decline in UK interest and representation (William Hague, “Britain and Latin America: Historic friends, Future Partners,” 9 Nov. 2010)[1].


[T]he situation of LAC [Latin American and Caribbean] studies in the UK should first be understood in the light of the development and situation of area studies generally. This is not least because the original purpose of LAC studies some 50 years ago was fully concomitant with the overall value and purpose of area studies… For the creation of a new subject, Latin American studies (the Caribbean was added much later) was clearly underpinned by the then government’s awareness of the lack of knowledge about the region, particularly at a time of political change, when it became the focus of world attention (2014 LAC Report, pp. 9).

Contrary to the fantasies of the flag-wavers and chest-beaters, Brexit was always going to put the little in Little England rather than the great in Great Britain. But nobody realised our influence would shrink quite this fast and leave us looking quite this small…

Conventional wisdom has now developed a new convention of its own: first it states the uncertain with great certainty, only to be proven wrong by events, and then it embarks upon a period of narrowly tailored and very public retraction. After acknowledging an error of prediction, there are no efforts to address the underlying logic that produced that error. Their contrition only lasts until their next mistake (Gary Younge, “A Shock to the System” (The Guardian, The Long Read Journal Section, pp. 33-35): p. 35.


During my lifetime most of the problems the world has faced have come, in one fashion or another, from mainland Europe, and the solutions from outside it. That generalization is clearly true of the Second World War. (…). But my opening generalization is also in a different sense true of the Cold War. (…) Europe as a whole is fundamentally unreformable (Margaret Thatcher, On Europe (London: William Collins, 2002): pp. 3-4.



Thinking must go on regardless of horrendous events of violence in the metropolis of London. I joined proceedings in what was to be the last event of the season hosted by the Institute of Latin American Studies, part of the School of Advanced Study, at the University of London: the so-called LAGLOBAL/LASS Roundtable Workshop[3], directed by Mark Thurner, U.S. Latinamericanist historian linked to the University of Florida with most of his work credited to the Peruvian context, at least until recently. The Leverhulme Trust was acknowledged in the handout literature. What follows is the rendition of key aspects of this one-day event on 2 June 2017. I follow Chatham House rules of engagement seeking maximum circulation of the intellectual, political and social issues exceeding any individual unit or monad, discipline, academe and institution. To be sure, the issues raised will echo outside London. I follow my own notes and the perspective is undoubtedly, mine. The first person pronoun refers to the author of these pages. It is one succinct account, one truth and one story among others, surely not the whole picture. May others be equally forthcoming with their own versions of things.


Will Brexit Britain Withdraw its Studies Upon Itself?

It is not obvious why any organism would externalise or outsource its critical intelligence, particularly in moments of supreme difficulty, except perhaps in relation to tighter budgets, minor interests and secondary or tertiary set of pressures. Wouldn’t sensible organisations or good-oiled institutions commit their best endeavours to the most pressing needs and pass accordingly to others tasks deemed of lesser value or compromised worth? And we must surely look closer into the logic of outsourcing and assume that institutions qua bureaucratic creatures hide by the fowler behind the stalking horse underneath clouds of mystery and secrecy, unanswered emails and unreturned phone calls. Institutions may say they care very much about doing one thing and turn to doing many other contradictory things before the cock calls for the new day. Nobody’s perfect, as in the happy ending of the funny American comedy: thought and care may be outsourced to outsiders and foreigners who thus come to dominate the social interaction inside ambitious realms officially devoted to the pursuit of knowledge. The K-word is here the operative word, perhaps utopian.


Be as it may: entire areas, big and small, will be consigned to third parties, outsiders or foreigners of various types, hues, accents, distinctions and gradations, provided these will behave properly and no big disruption ensues, no irreparable damage is done unto the cultural furniture, the upholstery is not messed around with, the china is not broken, and Ferdinand, the bull, turns to do what he is reported to like best, to smell the flowers, and enters and leaves peacefully, whilst the topiaries are seasonally tendered. What is there to object? Who would complain? Are exchanges not civil? Aren’t things in the proper place? Will native self-confidence falter with torn ligaments, sore joints, jumpy heart beats? Will homegrown resilience still caress the sterling in the purse, follow the oblique trajectories of global history, feel the weight of a sense of general decline in the stomach after the light sandwich and the tea, still follow the popular-electoral demand to delink from the Continent? What about the other continental units? How many are they?



The immediate circumstance, i.e. Brexit Britain, is one of profound disorientation, born out of repeated violence in the streets, of sustained austerity and sudden General-Election resulting in a hung parliament with a small conservative majority, fog, rain, and record-hot temperatures against the vast landscape of Europe and the ”U.S. and the Americas,” as the aforementioned Chatham House has it. The violent attacks have been endured, I must say, with admirable calmness and the “island race” remains a belligerent one, and with no irony, this is another feather on the cap. Yet, the question is not rhetorical: why should anyone pay good-quality attention to other regions of the world, “Latin America” for example[4], delivering no immediate impact or direct significance over here? Indeed, why look elsewhere?


Foreignness: Early Considerations.

Deictics do not lie. If those foreign regions are indeed “there:” why bother with them over here? Would you go mentally elsewhere when you feel your brain is busy, your wallet, tight, your feet furiously pedalling away in the bicycle high in the air? But whither? How on this earth plan a big adventure when Brexit negotiations beckon? How to ”go foreign” when the domestic or native dimension is so terse, tense? Foreignness is a potentially good abstract category (topos or “place”) to consider not only in relation to holidays, unaccustomed food and expensive luxury products, clothes for example, but also in relation to scholarly and academic matters typically not rendering good monetary value. It is not atypical for foreignness to assume a subaltern place under nativistic assumptions, particularly when things get complicated.



Foreign-native and global-local are two inescapable binaries in the context of this LAGLOBAL roundtable / workshop: the interesting thing will be to see concrete or situated articulations. One early dilemma for the inquisitive mind will be whether to keep the typical binaries going  nicely ventilated under the air-conditioner of hot-weather conditions, also in the insurgent isles, or throw all of these binaries away into the muddy waters of the Thames and make a mess out of them (a río revuelto, ganancia de pescadores, as the saying goes). Consider the conventional partition of the subject of knowledge and the object of the knowledge tangled up among various nationalities: there will be many other mixed stages. Orwellian truth: some (subjects / objects of knowledge) are more foreign than others. Some localities are closer than others. Some languages possess the middle deictic in between here and there (Spanish “ahí,” for example). Some “places” are more crowded than others (the rule of thumb: pre-20th-Century authors and texts emerging from foreign locations will be less immediate or popular). Call this unpopular condition “minor subject.”

A typical defensive move will be to commission the studies of foreign parts to native or quasi-native practitioners (scholars, academics), those who have learned to transverse bureaucratic textures and amiably pass security controls holding the right documents. How decisively? How consistently? And how usable would that knowledge be?: this is the initial triangle of questions surrounding the  “to be or not to be” of what it is that we think we mean when we say we know this or that, and (fail to) say we do not do so at all, and this “negative” point may instead turn out to be a good point of departure to start off to better things in the knowledge department. It is easy to see that xenophilic messages finding limitations or faults with the immediate circumstance will be harder to come by.


The place of knowledge was occupied in the gathering in question by the social sciences, particularly the disciplines of history and anthropology in this stated order of preference. As far as I could see there was at least one uninvited guest, perhaps an interloper following the stalker to the forbidden Zone, according to the inspiration of Tarkovskij, having a look at the (para-) institutional conditions of sociability apropos “minority subjects.” Nothing can be taken for granted. Good kick-off question: what does “knowledge” stand for?


And What Does ”Knowledge”  Stand For?

You may feel inclined to turn nationally inward, become somewhat introspective, yield to defensive localism or resistant parochialism, perhaps even give in to imperial melancholia, as Paul Gilroy insists. And how many nationalities have you got? And is nationality really the defining factor, the fundamental playground where intellectual life also happens?  This existential-retreat reaction is up to a point understandable in the British conjuncture. And the immediate question will be the future configuration of knowledge in relation to its past and present? How would the significant past be reconfigured since the past is always already retrospective reconstruction attending to the fads, fashions, pressures, themes and inclinations of the ephemeral present overshooting its mark into possibilities in the future.



To be persuasive, such retrospective task would require radical contextualization, i.e. the concrete demarcation of the immediate circumstance inside which knowledge producers will be situated. Typically, the intentions of these participants will be inferred. But individual intentionality will only take us so far. Collective forces will be the real dilemma and greatest difficulty. In truth, who would turn in public its back to knowledge, the sapere aude? Indeed, knowledge remained something mysterious in its nominal abstraction, something like a ghost or a cipher, with or without the occasional pluralization, the province of a sub-group, elite, caste, subalterns or pariahs, since it was hardly demarcated by chronology and only summarily regionalized, initially about and from Latin America.


Indeed, the Latin American construct, or Latin America elsewhere, since we rub our eyes and we are still in London, or “timespace other,” ideological or not, within the immediate entities of Britain, Europe and the United States inside North Atlantic flows and tensions already mentioned[5]. Mark the underlined prepositions (about, from): the dual prepositional coexistence has become something of a must delivering the issues of referentiality and perspectivism.


The knowledge of and from Latin America was something that came and went, evanescent and mutational, ethereal, abstract, exotic and other, at least during the proceedings in this workshop, more gossamer than elephant to shoot and kill with white man’s burden, if only according to George Orwell’s famous story and this time with no demonstrative gestures of identity politics, or “native informers” passing reliable information elsewhere. Latin America, irrenounceable grand manner of a colossal timespace, at least by those self-appointed Latin Americanists, was here not interrogated or not properly historicized, except in the New-World. Now, this was to be a curious renaissance of a very old nomenclature reaching us in the new century, almost in the manner of a pristine Venus from the waters of historiography, still attractive and unscathed by the disputations of an Antonello Gerbi and most damagingly by Mexican historiography, Edmundo O’Gorman surely occupying the honorary place of pre-eminence, vis-à-vis his European and U.S. counterparts. “New World” was probably intended as quaint euphemism for the Americas pointing fingers in the direction of the birth of the national formations as we know them today (i.e. the long nineteenth century). My inference: there was the inspiration of the work of Cañizares Esguerra dealing with the Enlightenment until early 20th century, say, also in the effort to mediate the “America” of the U.S. and the América of the Spanish speakers. I would narrow it down to the demarcation of the late-colonial and the post-national moment of the Andes in Latin America reaching contemporary historiographies according to professional historians. It was as though no single sub-regional part and parcel of Latin America could sustain the global interest for the length of time of a morning or afternoon session: the jump was to go from the (sub-)continent to the totality of the history of knowledge, or that giant, the world. Where were its stages in between, its mediations?


Knowledge is the Business at Hand and One Wants to be There at Source.

Other binaries can be brought near knowledge production in its typical envelope: official and non-official, institutional, para-institutional and non-institutional at all. Since we are dealing with processes, it is healthy to consider the latest form of knowledge against obsolete, antiquarian knowledge, even knowledge in ruins, for example inside museums. But there are also challenging processes jumping outside the limitations of the text, (de-)institutionalisations and destructive re-articulations not entirely always to be deplored.


Knowledge is the business at hand and one wants to be there at source, and get it from the horse’s mouth whenever possible, surely more often than not. Will the horse collaborate with us and always tell it straight? Probably not. It will be wise to assume a sociology of bureaucratic dealings apropos knowledge production, the general map of the regions of the world being no exception. The template of “Area Studies” must be summoned as condition sine qua non, particularly in fields of the social sciences. The emphasis was not to make the politics of knowledge production  explicit. But no one doubts that it is “there,” hardly ever coming out into the open, making itself visible and explicit, at the School of Advanced Study at the University of London, surrounded by other entities such as Canning House, Chatham House and The Leverhulme Trust among others.


I realize that abstract formulations will be unsatisfactory but this is as far as I will be able to go for now in pointing fingers in the direction of politics of knowledge production. Knowledge may stand for officialdom or at least one of its modalities, perhaps even receiving the adjective “imperial” historically speaking in relation to knowledge practices with a global outreach, that travel and go many places. The meeting offered the suggestion of the encyclopedic and the “imperial” impetus in lexicons put together by John Boag and John Ogilvie, for example, and there will be correlatives in other languages. One can seek into associations and varieties of knowledge practices (knowledge, science, wisdom, wit, saber, sabiduría, conocimiento, ingenio, etc.). Who would be against it, right? Knowledge, but also History, enters the arena surrounded by its brass instruments, against its multiple claims, stories or narratives, and the hesitation happens immediately whether to capitalize or not these grand and venerable nouns, whilst fishing “the humanities” by the tail versus totality or Humanity. But the name in the previous quotation marks is largely odd, quaint and non-idiomatic, of philological pedigree, yet of a different kind to the one mentioned during this one-day gathering, and by its thin presence, unexceptionally negative, negligible field of quasi or non-knowledge also inside the School and University of the immediate metropolis. The humanities will still be making claims for the good thing, i.e. knowledge and one wonders what these foreshortened perspectives will render of significant value. Its predominant modality of being appears to be one of cultural-diversity stance.


Other modalities, non-governmental knowledge and non-statist science, not to mention knowledge that is not for profit, will have to be imagined like the outgrowth of vegetation inside controlled spaces, perhaps not worthy of a second look, a matter of negligible detail, or of personal idiosyncrasy that may refuse to yield to pragmatism. And what to say about practices not blessed with the institutional blessing? The main tune is hesitant, revealing uncertainty in the dance of the disciplines and not only in Great Britain. Brexit exacerbates a certain British moment of global uncertainty apropos the crisis of the university directly caught up in the transatlantic American-European axis. LAGLOBAL (LA stands for Latin America), is the final pick in the conventional binary (global / local): clear sign of the stronger push-and-pull and gravitational direction in case you had any doubts.


The Recurrent Global / Local Binary in the ”Indigenous”  Vicinity.

One fundamental theme: the binary of the global and the local left unresolved in the vicinity of the “indigenous” dimension raising more scepticism than enthusiasm, also left unresolved. And I suppose that short-term gatherings are all about spin-doctor irresolutions or soft lines or borders. This general theme configured the second half of the day. The first half was meant to bring attention to the history of knowledge, called a “new field” of inquiry. So this was a kind of a quinceañera meeting, if not celebration, in relation to one timespace, chronotope or more conventionally “region” called Latin America, albeit blurred in the abbreviated “LA” acronym, which is not Los Angeles, gravitationally pushing and pulling in the “indigenous” direction. The abbreviated LAGLOBAL is perhaps telling of organizational intentionality, a kind of plus-ultra regionalism hitting all other regions, but not quite. No knowledge and no history without its interrogation or critique: the question will be whether the critique will always aim to provide fuel to the operational “pragmatism” of the endeavour in question or not at all. How far in the critique then? And this is a general dilemma. Here, it did not go too far. Peter Burke became the initial name of reference, presented as a kind of lighthouse in these disorienting times, sitting at arms’ length, advocating the new field with impeccable British moderation and fair play.


The proper move is still, how could it not?, to pluralize ipso facto the main nouns involved: critiques or interrogations of the theories or comprehensions of plurality of knowledge or knowledges. One and many, identity and difference, Same and Other: here we are in the abstract tangle of more binary formulations in the age of fragmentation of narratives. The workshop did not quite put its finger on such fragmentation or even collapse.

With or without great conviction, the suggested horizon to contemplate was one of a big reunion of knowledges, a big, virtual Encyclopedia, a Summa Theologica of sorts, knowledges coming to settle together so to speak, leaving their silos (the word was explicitly mentioned more than once), criss-crossing roots and routes, overlapping trajectories, happily jumping fences, intersecting, collaborating, blending, more fusion than fission here. The abstraction to contemplate was one of academic units willing to leave their disciplinary micro-groups behind into the wilderness of ecumenic association (we will see shortly the small letters to these big capitals!). Abstract content of university brochures will give you the same general feeling of knowledge affirmation. Inter- or trans-disciplinarity is what was implied, yet the focus on the disciplines of history and anthropology was retained in this London gathering.


It is easy to see how managers of institutions with a finger on the budget would eagerly jump on all sorts of collaborations in theory left under-verbalized. Better one chair with a few additions and aggregates than separate labels and fields kept separate and distinct. Better a cheaper buffet option than each one with a fully served plate! Better sharing the same plate with one serving than multiple servings by each disciplinary field! The implied suggestion was of plural narrative possibilities, or histories. Better yet, the ghost of a historicism of sorts was summoned, a presentiment rather, almost Hamlet like vis-à-vis an unnamed father figure, who would put global things together, at least for the one-day duration of the workshop, call it short-term happiness, confluence, or “peace resolution” if you wish. But since there was no assigned social group carrying out the together-endeavour in no institution or locality, no working class carrying out the revolution of global liberation say, such “resolution” has to be called by the proper name of utopia. The implied subject position was, I suppose, occupied by historians and to a lesser degree by anthropologists of Latin America, by default occupying the Anglo-American sphere of transatlantic influence.


Such endeavour was begging for a good ideological name that could transcend, crazy idea, the precincts of this or that discipline practiced by few official representatives. But there was never an explicit frame. No chosen Pretorian guard of big-tent pan-disciplinary narrativity being brought to bear arms against other lesser barbarous modalities kept at a distance. I personally thought of the aforementioned “barbaric” humanities particularly in a language different from the one used in this piece of writing. I wonder if I was the only one with such incongruous and excessive thought. No account was to be had among competing options for schools of thought, narrative impulse, political goal, etc. either in the past and the fleeting present. LAGLOBAL delivered an implicit and latent desire for a new historicism, surely not near literary and cultural modalities[6].


When plagued by doubts, the little cherub flying around your eyes will whisper “be polite, particularly in these fast-passing circumstances.” Call it the liberal gesture: the contemplation of plurality of options, and leave the community of readers and interpreters at their wits’ ends, with a do-it-yourself of your own devices. It will be your own maps favourite authors and best bibliography, your own madness and method, your own conclusions, should you wish to reach any, but not so publicly. This is what was done and this is what we all do in transient places, hubs of public transport for instance. The implied ideology of the roundtable was thus in this sense “liberal,” not advancing a sustained narrative, not making preferences, name-dropping a bit, throwing high in the air gossamer-like possibilities whilst keeping repudiations warm under wraps, beyond sight and reach of ear, hidden under the table. Blow it up: such proceeding is quitessentially managerial, a bit like the U.N. against the larger background of the ”liberal West” and the rest. It makes an awful lot of sense within the matrix of development the focus on the indigenous (or non-West) subject position. No one I could see or hear would willingly assume such position at the discussion table of this workshop. And the name of the broker, or at least one of them, Marisol de la Cadena in relation to the Andes. Mediations were not established. Bridges were not built. Yet in another manner of speaking, our moment is one of fractures within this hitherto dominant West, the British context currently one of its most visible sites. Well, here, the construct of Latin America was presented as timespace other, peculiar in-between creature, tug-of-war, minority field of study to be sure, captured by the disciplines of history and anthropology, as well as others, the region that will engage the native-foreign dichotomy in myriad ways. The assumption was one of attention, perhaps assuming the qualifying of benign, to the detail of insubstantial generalities. No body of literature, no textual frame of intelligibility was circumscribed or made accessible, explicit.



The Anthropological Frame of Intelligibility of the Other of Europe: Typically Xenophobic.  

I would therefore generalise by saying that the common frame of intelligibility of this vast timespace synthesized under the rubric of the Other of Europe (Latin America being one sub-section of this vast Other) turned out to be anthropologically Eurocentric, if only by default. The operative invitation to a working assumption was that of the gigantic history of the discipline and where else if not within the rarefied label of the West. Against the generality that such Other than Europe is not uncommonly xenophobic rather than xenophilic, the roundtable would have begged to differ in the latter road less travelled, and would have surely made declarations on the goodness of the relative unconventionality typically situated in such minority fields. But no one has to assume good deeds at face value given there was no textual evidence or warm sociability of scholarly openness. It is by no means obvious what goodness to invoke for such minor-field endeavours: more plurality of cultural-diversity? The reconfiguration of the dominant model ever so slightly? Who would dare welcome the turning upside down of what is declared to be orthodoxy or the norm? We will soon see the momentous claim made.

We are Really Dealing with Foreign Studies.

But we are dealing with foreign studies, or studies of the foreign parts within, if not against the subjacent, implied matrix, call it by the opposing nativism. Neutrality or indifference , or even value-free, I suppose, is possible in relation to dimensions largely considered inconsequential and trivial. The possibility of xenophilia will have to handle to the best of its knowledge the typical declarations of nativism, i.e. xenophobia. One may remember the formulation of the “wound” of the Other coming from existential historicism simply for the mere fact of stubbornly sticking to their ways and refusing to be like us, the observing subject position coincidental with discursive production. Such unavoidable tension brings “home” the web of relations among subject positions, the assumed traditions and dependencies and future interests. These foreign studies have increasingly had to assume the carta de naturaleza of cultural relativity under the presumption of equal worth as long as their practice does not disrupt the pre-established arrangement. Such polite convention is also compensation for unequal representation and dim visibility in the study of the dimension abbreviated as “Other.” One equivalent can indeed be “indigenous” to a more liberal-cosmopolitan “Same” or even “West.” A second generalisation may add the split between “Anglos” and “Latins:” the former would not typically put the said construct of Latin America inside the West, whilst defending the bicontinentality of “America,” adding naturalising or identifying the sign with one of the nationalities of North America, and the astute reader instantly knows which one; whereas ”Latins”  would insert Latin America ever so naturally in the West, not without tensions, and wish to put together North and South in the same continental unit, whilst precisely demarcating such domineering nationality, unless they are already lost in the conventionally imperial and imperious English language with no significant epistemic trace of other languages and cultures. It is to the credit of the roundtable that such drastic split was blurred.


The reader of these pages will pick their side inside this split which cannot be reconciled. The “modern foreign languages” in English-speaking countries follow identical othering anthropological frame of intelligibility vis-à-vis “English.” The Anglo-Latin difference is worth underlining: only very absent-minded Spanish speakers will call U.S. Citizens “Americans,” unlike conventional English speakers on both sides of the Atlantic and efforts such as “the Americas” remain something of an academic affectation failing to give a good shake to the institutional imagination (the immediate history of the Advanced Studies at the University of London being a case in point). Hence, the renaissance of the “New World” makes some sense if you hear the term with conventional English ears and you remain blind and deaf to the strength of Mexican historiography since the middle of last century (and there will be other contesting lines of demarcation I am less familiar with within the Latin American domain). Spatio-temporal demarcations are not to be taken for granted. Neither are resilient misnomers and the typical conditioning of the plural languages versus the lingua franca used in these pages.


Latin America Elsewhere: Perhaps Better Call it “Minority Subject.”

 The anthropological and historical object of knowledge of Latin America is one side of the expression ”minority subject.”  The other side refers to the individuals, the people, engaged in such endeavours of studying such themes and issues and/or the social groups or people theoretically covered, explained or represented in them. This minority-subject condition is, I would argue, particularly the case outside the timespace conventionally demarcated as “Latin America,” or Latin America elsewhere. We may imagine the use of instruments such as binoculars (or a believable second language) covering long distances away from the immediate circumstance, thus relativizing its total importance (the realm of the digital culture may bring timespace distances into question perhaps narrowing them in novel ways). Foreign-Area Studies will cover what is not immediately or easily available. Good reasons are needed for the sustained extra stretch or push in this expansive direction.   Adding some poignancy, bells are tolling (John Donne dixit) for the deliberate Brexit demarcation from its natural European interconnectedness. Will such shift augur greater connectedness with other big units, Latin America for example? Perhaps.



But the linguistic function of referentiality may indeed go in many directions, and it will find reverberations or echoes in other timespaces, the so-called butterfly effect in which the said delicate insect flies around beautiful flowers over here only to become a minor nuisance a bit further away and perhaps a natural disaster, a tornado, a hurricane over there. The academic interest may turn political, bring commotion and even spread unto the streets. Such desire to connect directly was nowhere to be seen in the workshop in question as though academic and political were on two different planes of reality. The global / local dichotomy is really about webs of relations and who gets to circulate in diverse social circles and who does not at all. The issue of referentiality is potentially multi-directional and only operative in relation to that demarcation over there. What about the provenance of the knowledge production? What about the source, the frames of legitimacy, intelligibility?


The productive image is that of a gun carried by any user, even a careless child. The shot can go in many directions. Studies of foreign regions (aka Area Studies) will claim to reveal many things about the timespace over there, but in equal measure it will speak volumes of many things over here. Crucially, there is no need to go with the assumption that there is immediate or direct correlation between the scholar subjects and the subjects studied, no matter the representational claims typically made along the way (in a quick manner of speaking, it is believable to contemplate a U.S. national speaking of old Iberian constructions of Andean subjects in the British context under the rubric of the history of knowledge). It is easy to foresee revolts embedded in unequal conditions of knowledge production inside institutions of higher learning the moment you tinker with the previous adjectives (it is less believable to contemplate an Andean national speaking of old and new constructions of U.S. subjects in the “American” context invoking the rubric of the history of knowledge). Some of these tensions were perceptible during the roundtable, how could they not?, whilst keeping politeness tied to the tail of the dog and the dog tied to the legs of the discussion table.



I was lucky to be surrounded by about twenty-odd colleagues in various configurations of public-private access, yet another binary that will not go away by the end of this piece. There were a couple of absences of the listed names among which the British natives were in the minority. Those present self-assigned themselves largely into the disciplines of history and anthropology. I doubt most individuals knew each other before the meeting. Their self-presentations were brief and professionally based for the most part. There had been no preambles and I doubt there was a common frame of textuality or even mission. We were mostly members of the European West, mostly white non-British, four or five U.S. citizens, no discernible difference either way in quantity of men and women, different ages and most capable of holding conversation in English and Spanish, some also in French, with the ”Latin” contingent (not the old language of the Romans, and also not the U.S. citizens or residents of Latin American extraction) forever young and firmly in the irregular and junior levels in the academic profession. I think I detected one squatter in the congregation, perhaps two. I do not know if there had been any hacking attempts. Will the roundtable prove to be long-lasting and decisive or entirely ephemeral? Will the organisation seek greater fraternity? LAGLOBAL was typical happenstance sociability in the world-famous Bloomsbury area of London.


History and anthropology were the disciplinary nouns of collective congregation, at least for some present, surely with awareness of its own different schools and subdivisions and possible overlaps, which were not made explicit. This social-science tandem, minus sociology, was the foreshortened disciplinary perspective, the little star in the sky-high constellation of the disciplines if you wish, making claims for the foregone conclusion of a grandiose synthesis surely to land in front of the eyes in the foreseeable future. Oasis by the University of London or purely fast and furious passing through this institution?



Yet, we can think of this synthesis in terms of any significant noun in the radical singular form, with or without the call for plurality of liberal options: all roads lead to Rome. We can perhaps make the connection between this God-like synthesis and the Freudian “oceanic feeling” of union with the Universe the Viennese thinker endeavoured to problematize as a form of immaturity or infantilism. And who would dare offer a big vision of the relations among the sciences (natural, social, human) in curricular offerings? But this was not the time and place for such monumental task. In relation to this concrete LAGLOBAL roundtable / workshop, inference of the comments exchanged takes me to the predominance of a ”history -of -ideas”  type of history, framed by the orthodoxy of the  comparative or cultural-relativistic type of anthropology in the vicinity of names such as Clifford and Geertz. There was the sprinkling of other names such as the French Levi Strauss and to a lesser degree, there was a deferential inclusion of the Mexican Manuel Gamio in relation to an organization of international impact. The spectre of Latin America that emerged here was not that of the Southern Cone, or the Mexican, or the Caribbean. It was the Andes, not exactly within an easy flight from London.


There was a Bit of “Othering” Going On.

 There was undoubtedly a bit of ”othering” going on, and perhaps we can think of the term in quotation marks as one public face of foreignness in which foreignness remains distant and far away with no immediate or direct impact in the immediacy. Latin America was “over there,” detached apparently from political events of significance, disinclined to do business transactions, largely “de-humanized.” Its content, thin. Its inevitability, theoretical.  It did not relate to its previous reincarnations. It was not entirely different Latin America or Latin America “otherwise.” No one should expect miracles from one-day roundtables failing to make explicit connections with agendas out there.

One super-big claim made was that “Latin America” may well constitute a desirable disruption to the matrix of intelligibility or history of knowledge. With some tweaking the Dusselian formulation may be warranted, but here? Such abstract or generic formulation invites to the valid assumption that we were dealing with the Eurocentrism of such history of knowledge (the conventional formula is that conventional “America” or the United States, is mere, late extension, offshoot, military-power and popular-culture version of capital accumulation, of the European West). I would have bet my money that we were in this ideological universe with or without its necessary restlessness. The sign “Latin America” showed teething troubles. It had no bite. The construct remained dangling by the skin of the teeth of discursive generality.

It is perhaps fair to say that the foreignness of these (Latin American) studies was not attenuated in the end, given the ties remained loose, the connections ever so discreet and even ephemeral, with any assumed “nativity” of persistent significance, be it England, Britain, Europe, the United States, this or that discipline or this or that “ground.” Interestingly, the U.S. remain in discreet second plane, yet ominous. Thin presence of the dominant English-speaking world and Britain throws the additional peculiarity of the official divide of “foreign and commonwealth,” the latter term referring to (closer, directly post-colonial and immigrant) parts of the historical British Empire; Latin America is thus foreign in this precise British way outside its direct area of purchase of imperial history.


The message passed to us was that Latin America was indeed fertile terrain for the anthropological type of knowledge, the typical knowledge about the “Third World” historically inherited division of intellectual labour vigorously since World War II, hegemonic things turning “American” since the 1950s[7]. Third world or more euphemistically, the developing world, that is where we were quickly perambulating imaginatively with or without the Latinization of the region born again as the new world. Truism: no single name will ever be good, trans-political name to everyone’s liking among those involved in (the politics of) knowledge production. Names and areas of coverage and partition will remain contentious. Misnomers abound: the sign “Latin America” for sure, ”Europe” was also talked about as being problematic. The “United States” was the white elephant in the room, how could it not?, and not only in relation to the nationality of a few participants. Yet this “America” entity was mostly missing in action as source of funding or part of the network of the LAGLOBAL initiative run by an American scholar with the main institutional site still listed at the University of Florida. How representative was this diasporic “American” Latin Americanism jumping up to catch the twigs of the global history of knowledge? I cannot possibly say but the U.S.-centric pull of world coverage is beyond doubt. Is this also the case for the world of university-level studies? And perhaps we are all adjusting at least in the transatlantic West to a transitional period of “American” retreat and gradual decline, which does not augur well for the “special relationship” with Brexit Britain.


Whose Protestations about Divisions Of Intellectual / Academic Labour?

The roundtable workshop offered few noticeable protestations pro or con. The general tone remained matter or fact, ever so tentative and discreet, polite and calm about general unequal access of knowledge production inside the division of social scientific labour in our immediate present. We were furnished with no map. We were tendered no cartographies or bibliographic corpus. There were no signs to no roads. There was no Rome to reach, no Cuzco, no Tenochtitlán. With no common origin and no teleology: where to go and what to do about it passing fast and furious through the institutions. It was as though the “stealing” of the “modernity” of these (foreign area) studies by the “Americans,” one among many, and some tongue-in-cheek is appropriate, since we were all operating in the lingua franca, did not exclude tact and tacit agreement by the guests playing nice to the hosts.


I missed something along the lines of a Pletschian rendering of the division of labour in the conjuncture. It was not to be had. I also missed something along the lines of Wallersteinian sociology of the reconfiguring of the social sciences. I wish I had had greater definition of what constitutes the good history as opposed to less good varieties. No attempt at periodising the possible histories of knowledges was forthcoming, except the referenced Peter Burke, one of his books cited in the preamble: beginnings matter. Who else will be around the birth of this “not yet field”?

I suppose this LAGLOBAL roundtable workshop would be happy to throw its weight around a new variety of the historical discipline and pick it up among other labels and subfields (global history, history of ideas, intellectual history, international thought, stepping ahead of what used to be called imperial or commonwealth history, international history, world history, social history, etc.). “Latin America” still has to contend with the default position, typically assumed, implicit or dominant, historically central or dominant, call it Europe if you wish, but there are other categories (the West, the English language, the “white” ethno-racial category, operative in the U.S., and the U.K., etc.). Pace the alliteration: how discordant, dissonant, indeed dissident did the workshop prove to be?



The Study of the Past May Register Discontent with the Present.

A promising expression of discontent was made in passing: the study of the past means, at least potentially to some, the discontent with the present in so far as the past is a world different and alternative to our present means and ways. The past is the Other, potentially disruptive force, besides evasion, nostalgia or antiquarian disposition. But here the wish was clear: the past is indeed foreign country in the famous expression of L. P. Hartley. The past is not even past yet, with the twist of the great writer Faulkner, in its destabilizing kernel, I suppose, comparatively speaking with our immediacy.

 The articulation of this disruptive potential of the construction of the past was left tantalizingly underdeveloped, stimulating the appetite. Its abstraction, also its ghost of the subject position following no discernible interpellation in the Althusserian sense of the term, does not take anything away from the grand possibility of the upset of the here-and-now that is negatively accordingly not the best of all possible worlds, not utopian at all, but paltry, niggardly, wanting. With no faces, names, geographies, it is impossible to say for certain how to take this provocation: the other timespace, the time and place other, will perhaps deliver things you have not yet imagined. Is this “other” compensatory function responding to our miseries and allowing us to cope better with our (un-)acknowledged failures? Is “Latin America” the continental sign of condemnation of the insufficiencies of other timespaces (Europe, the U.S., etc.)? Is such insinuation of a construct of an alternative world instead entirely delusory, desultory sign of weakness to look at reality in the face and change it, feeble coping mechanism, perhaps privatized mirage and angelic sublimation? Apolitical heaven of earthly delights? Projection of sunny sky under unpredictable weather? Externality of sorry interiority? Escapism? There will be many possibilities.


The part re-arranges the whole picture: LAGLOBAL wanted to push in the direction of this provocation. The engagement with the region in question will re-arrange the totality. This reconstruction of the past will find fault in the present and change it for the better in the near future. The workshop perhaps attempted to propose a possibility of liberation that did not dare speak its name making its way as anyone would cheerfully do caught up in throngs of people in the metropolis, perhaps safely released into the vomitorium of the business of knowledge production. With no proper names invoked, no concrete social groups alluded to, no proliferation of images, with politics seemingly evaporated, it is impossible to say for certain what to do with any of this. Allegorically speaking, seduction and persuasion were not seen riding in tandem around the brutalist skyscraper of the University of London. One example of visual decoration of the LAGLOBAL roundtable may release extra information. It refers to a rare cultural object, to be disclosed soon, within the Hispanic encyclopedic tradition hiding away in a Madrid Museum.



Rare Instances of Academic Declaration of Belief or Intent.

It is rare to witness strong declarations of intent and belief, also among academics and scholars, and only the brave and the free, I suppose, will publicize intellectual tensions and repudiations, I am of course ironically referencing the lyrics of the U.S. anthem. Such decisiviness was not to be had the 2 June 2017. The LAGLOBAL roundtable was no exception in this regard towards explicitness of intent and genuine belief in the pursuit of “regional” studies. The matrix of intelligibility was never made explicit; ergo, one must always already assume the default or hegemonic position (the West, Europe & the U.S., the category of “white,” the sciences minus the human sciences, the foreign-policy priority of interest among geopolitically influential nation-states, etc.).


There was a supremely cautious attitude on the organizational front keeping faith with the proceedings of the day apolitically moving the conversation along so to speak until the safe landing in irresolution to maps and routes left undisclosed. Let us instead carve out some tensions, areas of difference and demarcations. One, the humanities, or the liberal arts. Two, Area Studies and its connections with state or government interests. ”Culture”  was not a term often invoked.  Neither was ”cultural studies,” perhaps too compromised and militant for some on either side of the Atlantic[8]. There was none of this literature-and-culture “stuff” flying around the University of London this time.


And there was some resistance to what was called the ”colonial divide.” The why was not clear to me. Was it  because such binary demarcations (West and non-West, or First and Third Worlds, say) were typically poorly historicised? Would this be too crude, too elementary, too pedagogic a heuristic device? I did not perceive receptivity to the postcolonial-school suggestions. Few and oblique were the references to the legacy of post-structuralism with thick silences. The apprehensive philosophical dimension, not quite the natural habitat, or happy purchase, in this type of conventional social-science congregation tied up somehow somewhat to the region of Latin America, despite or because of the sprinkling of names such as Foucault and Derrida.  Were we conscious to be in the premiership level of the national football competitions, to use the sports analogy?


About Amiable Collaborations with the History of Science.

There was mention of collaborations with the history of science, here clearly differentiated from knowledge. And this is perceptible tendency in recent years among “humanists,” perhaps it is still valid to use the old word, not without too much self-loathing, who come out into the open and allegedly give a hand to the history of medicine, for example. Acronyms such as “STEM” (previously SMET) give fair warning of official constructions of requirements embedded in collaborative endeavours which will bring fragile disciplines to the tight embrace of the natural sciences and to a lesser degree of the social sciences. Would this survival strategy hold for the length of time?

The University setting was naturalized in the workshop; that is, such was the only space contemplated, yet without playing out national demarcations and differences. There was no insinuation of the comparative problematization of knowledge production (structures, requirements) in Britain, Latin America or elsewhere (Latin American Studies will be largely  inside an ideology of Foreign Area Studies in Britain, idem in the U.S., but not inside Latin America, changing clothes and credentials at the national ports of entry and one can easily play with labels and studies as they get to circulate in different locations; somehow I doubt that English studies outside Anglophone societies will be labelled Area Studies in quite the same way as the situation we have got in our hands here with LAGLOBAL passing quickly through the University of London). One excellent reference was made in relation to the direction of influences and contacts in relation to the visibility of the indigenous category via Mexican anthropology, passing through French anthropology and reaching the world thanks to UNESCO funding.


Yet again, is this seeking umbrage in the history of the sciences fatigue duty of the beleaguered humanitie? Are they trying to “pass” for ancillary support system to something more serious than just the mere human sciences or the liberal arts? The alert reader will not miss the wry humour in italics.  But the option that caught more interest and echo, if not the most fire, was the call for a “new philology,” which meant nothing less than the desirable accomplishment of global textual rigour. Was this new-philology promise the best option for the fusion between history and anthropology in the context of Latin American studies? Is this invocation to the ghost of the possible apparition, this ”new philology,”  the small-letter concretisation of the aforementioned Summa Theologica, some unassuming stitching together of minor subjects with or without loud disruptive claims?


Did You Say “New Philology”?

This invocation to a “new philology” felt to me to be polite and tentative apolitical road to follow in uncertain times. Politeness is no a priori virtue to celebrate irrespective of the situational exchanges that may be taking place in diverse cultural settings. The immediate context was here, the one-day LAGLOBAL workshop, offered no open-access to its digital archives to help us out with the invocation to the return of the living dead of the old discipline (philology) from the limbo of banal inexistence in the European domain where I come from. The call was made by the Americans in the room and the situation is all the more paradoxical, given the dire straits since the 1980s-1990s (aforementioned Paul W. Drake and Lisa Hilbink dixit in the context of Area Studies, you only have to turn to the carcass of the Modern Language Association and its statistics for amiable companionship).Philology was / is indeed the old-fashioned, generic name of the degree one would receive in the humanities inside which rhetoric, linguistics, classical and modern languages, etc. would be housed. In my experience, the term is certainly not common or typical, little understood in relation to the historicist impulse embedded in the discipline of letters, preferably old. The older, the better. Philology, unless I am very much mistaken, was

never really the cup of tea in the English-speaking world on both sides of the Atlantic I encountered in departments of “English” and of “Romance Studies.” And comparative literature was the purview of expatriates typically coming from non-dominant nations. In London, I was sitting not among those with a philology degree who could invoke foreign names such as Francisco Rico in the Spanish-language tradition among others. There was something of a feeble “cultural appropriation” going on here which was trying to impress but who, with the dusting of the archaic noun, sounding to some a poly-syllable Latinate, indeed a neologism, adorned with the feather on the cap of the “new.”


Someone was doing this new philology elsewhere. I will have to investigate. There was something of a hearsay account. I suspect it comes from the U.S. since it was the Americans in the room with the advocacy. I bet my little humanist money on the intuition that this “new philology” is tactical invocation aimed at ruffling no feathers, tickling no funny bones of funding entities. Could it be that we are dealing with an attempt at a jargon of authenticity particularly when things are ever so political? This “new philology,” let us run with the intuition, is tactful discourse, a captatio benevolentiae of sorts, pallid dictum for parlous posts, wanting to go through as resoundingly apolitical across the channel, called English, and the Atlantic ocean, affectionately called pond. “New philology” sounds like a resuscitated neologism among those non-humanists (Rico is tout court humanist in the Early Italian near Dante kind of way and I doubt my interlocutors would have early Italian Humanism in mind!). The coupling: the not yet field of the history of knowledge with the new philology. In case of doubt, invoke the new or the modern or the latest thing and that will suffice. How did such invocation relate to the legacy of (post-)structuralism, they gave no indication of this alleged textual rigour (as opposed to loose or lazy textual violations?) in this context of area-studies of a big region typically underrepresented in international fora.


Calls for the “philological revival” and of a “decentring” kind were made. The name of James Turner was mentioned here, also the “World philology” approach by Sheldon Pollock et al, and the advocacy of “close reading of texts,” in which Chinese and Indian examples, etc. also have their own philologies inside some type of ecumenical tent of theoretical zero exclusion. The Derridian difference was mentioned in what felt to me to be unstoppable proliferation of irresolvable, unmeltable, also desirable cultural differences. I almost turned around to see if the ghost of old philologists from the old country, Francisco Rico being a dignified example still kicking around, would show up from behind the door. How to take this invocation to a new philology not made by trained philologists, but by (ethno-)historians in a dire moment of slim numbers of students in the humanities and surely the social sciences as well[9]? The invocation was to disciplinary rigour.



But this ”new philology” emerging apparently from nowhere may indeed be the most pragmatic and neutral way of seeking institutional acceptability circling around red-yellow-green signs of stop-pass-and-trespass in what appears to be conservative revival in the conjuncture. This post-cultural-studies conservative ethos can be imagined as “consolidation,” one euphemism among others, also retreat from making explicitly diverse ideological positions among competing schools of thought, generally shrinking to smaller dimensions deemed more manageable or spaces more bearable. Aren’t we all “just about managing” in the formula of the conservative Prime Minister? Why going for the outstretch, the overloading, the complexifying of the studies?

A certain institutional rigidification has undoubtedly taken place. And it is as though a number of disciplines had been prompted to hold hands with a feigned cultural-relativist all-welcome inclusion gesture, call it United Nations if you wish, peacefully sharing dwindling plateaus, playing musical chairs and entertaining each other sitting round the floor around the campfire, occasionally holding hands, eating marshmallows, talking past each other under the ecumenical tent of the total history of knowledge, which may or may not be called science. Aren’t disciplines instead more like cats and dogs of diverse stock, provenance, class, race and gender? Such is the liberal fallacy of theoretical all-inclusiveness vanishing as soon as something is at stake and risks are to be assumed.


The polite fallacy will however keep itself going, pedalling in its own imaginary vehicle in the thin air, as long as the knowledge button is not pressed hard, and knowledge is banalized and trivialized, deconcretized and desocialized, ornament in the official cap, decoration and little else and there is no threat and institutional things remain largely in place with or without occasional initiatives such as the one that concerns me here passing through the institution typically failing to make good local connections with perceptible disruptions in the House of Commons, the streets and the disciplines inside higher learning spaces undergoing “reorganizations,” as the euphemism has it.

Perhaps Americanization at least in relation to labour relations and privatizations is one valid synthesis for these transformations and we are all in it together “just about managing,” but some are more so than others. Using culinary language, there was here no cut to the bone of knowledge, sumum bonum no one can do without, but it is certain that the closer you get to it, things become funnier and more ticklish, almost more unpleasant and real and your favourite type of knowledge will be my source of curiosity and my favourite knowledge is your permanent state of ignorance, your hobby horse is not mine, and you despise my obsession as much as I despise yours, my pain is mine and yours is yours and my freedom fighter is your terrorist and your favourite drink is my poison, etc. In short, the door is open for the “us versus them,” or the politics of knowledge production, and I would rather look in the horizon illuminated by Szanton and others. Truism: it will not be a case of understanding at first sight, the political formula will not be grasped ipso facto, but even after a few hours you get an idea sifting the grain and husk, the things said and unsaid.


Probing attempts were kept out of sight of the LAGLOBAL workshop. The point was not to “bite” too much, too hard. Continuing with the culinary language: critical knives were kept under the table so to speak. The “meat” was not presented. It was tenderized. There was no time to make things more sustainable and substantial, more definite and biting. Isn’t time, or the lack of it, always the problem? There was accordingly an inescapable feeling in the air that the proceedings were of enormous inconsequence and Latin America, surely one vast timespace among others, did not leave the walking boots of the evanescent Other to go for a good walk in the immediate London circumstance. LAGLOBAL was mostly, at least from my foreshortened perspective, a publicity exercise of discreet face-to-face impact put together for the main purpose of individual circulation from place to place, as though one could really do it solo convincingly, winningly as in those early aviation attempts in sci-fi-looking vehicles giving it a go in prime instances of real science or perhaps knowledge.

Note: This is half of the entire piece of writing. For any comments, suggestions, criticisms, do not hesitate to get in touch with Fernando Game Herrero, fgh2173@gmail.com

Warwick, Great Britain 20 July 2017


[1] The complete official record was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government; Foreign Secretary William Hague in the Cameron-Clegg era discussed the UK’s relationship with Latin America (Canning House Lecture, 9 Nov 2010): https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/britain-and-latin-america-historic-friends-future-partners (access 14 July 2017).

[3] https://laglobal.blogs.sas.ac.uk/summer-2017/

[4] See the “Report on the state of UK-based research on Latin America and the Caribbean 2014” edited by Antoni Kapcia and Linda Newson (Institute of Latin American Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London, 2014). The study includes the words of Foreign Secretary William Hague, Conservative figure serving under PM David Cameron, aiming at ending the diplomatic retreat and improving British relations with Latin America, citing the scarcely 1% of international exports. Lib-Dem ex-MP Nick Clegg is mentioned in relation to a delegation to Mexico to export the “British success story” of the “educational industry.” The insertion of LAC (Latin America and the Caribbean) is firmly within the shadow of State interests and correspondingly of Area Studies, typically in the context of business investments and of “official” politics in organizations such as Canning House and Chatham House. It is clear that the ties between U.S. and Latin America are closer, tighter, bigger, and many more than the ones between the Latin region and the U.K., historically in more intimate, if awkward relationship with Europe (see the Thatcher quote), made ever so evident with Brexit. This English channel still is where the proximity, the bulk of economic ties and of diplomacy, politics, culture and commerce, the alliances and demarcations have played central role. Correspondingly, the unbalance between America-based and U.K.-based studies on the Latin American region is clear within the Western-bound sphere of influence invoking the name of “special relationship” reaching until Theresa May’s government. Will the gradual detachment from Europe (Brexit) mean a more convincing opening up to other regions? Following the official line of communication, I am not aware of proclamations about reinvigorating relations with Latin America that could correspondingly support such studies. The pre-Brexit 2014 Report offers a sober register of institutional reorganizations, funding cuts, declining numbers of staff and students in the appropriate languages, etc.


[5] See the panoramic vision furnished by “Latin American Studies: Theory and Practice” by Paul W. Drake and Lisa Hilbink, in David Szanton’s The Politics of Knowledge: Area Studies and the Disciplines (U of California, Berkeley: GAIA Books, 2002): pp. 1-27. It is not a rosy picture: the authors speak of a severe decline in intellectual and material support, of threatened specialization in the immediate future, of extremely difficult time for scholars in the subfield, of heavy cuts in funding already in the 1980s-1990s, etc.  See the panorama and policy proposals on U.S.-Latin America relations until the first term of the Obama administration in “Depening Regionalism and the US response” by Victor Bulmer Thomas, included in America and a Changed World: A Question of Leadership, credited to the current director of the Chatham House, Robin Niblett (Chatham House & Wiley, Blackwell: May 2010): pp. 1-17. See the complementary vision included in my “The U.S. Area Studies’ Frame of Intelligibility of Latin American Studies (Or, Tanto Monta, Monta Tanto, Rolena como Fernando),” http://www.fernandogomezherrero.com/blog/?p=867

[6] See one historicist option and my critique, “On Stephen Greenblatt’s historicism: Double Take;” http://www.fernandogomezherrero.com/blog/?p=801

[7] See the panorama laid out by Carl Pletsch’s “The Three Worlds, or the Division of Social Scientific Labor, circa 1950-1975,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 23 (1981): pp. 565-590. I do not know if Pletsch has done any follow-ups to this superb article post 1975.

[8] See three possibilities: Fredric Jameson’s “On Cultural Studies,” Social Text No. 34 (1993): pp. 17-52; a second, Stuart Hall and a third, John Beverley, in my blog, http://www.fernandogomezherrero.com/blog/

[9] See the so-called “Humanities Indicators,” the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, State of the Humanities: Higher Education 2015; www.humanitiesindicators.org/(access date July 2017), also the “Enrollments in Languages other than English in United States Institutions of Higher Education, Fall 2009,” by Nelly Furman, David Goldberg and Natalia Lusin (Web publication, December 2010), Modern Language Association (2010): hardly a cheerful read. I suppose there will be comparable collective data appertaining to Great Britain somewhere. Is it fair to assume smaller numbers tout court in the second smaller Anglophone country not historically dealing with massive migrations? Is it fair to assume USA-gravitational pull within Area Studies and also the liberal studies & cultural studies at least since mid-20th century? Will Brexit change things drastically towards a radical openness to other larger dimensions, without letting go of the European dimension not anymore in a position of historical dominance? We will all climb up to our best observation platforms holding tight to our binoculars.

John Beverley: Critical Legacy of “Theory” in the Larger Context of Politics since the 1960s. By Fernando Gómez Herrero, who attended the Arts Week 2017 (fernandogomezherrero.com).


“Theory” in the U.S. and beyond.

John Beverley delivered a 3-set masterclass titled “The Politics of Theory,” plus one extra lecture, “A New Orientalism: The Question of Literature as Such and Islamic Fundamentalism,” hosted by the Centre for Iberian and Latin American Visual Studies, in the context of Arts Week 2017 at Birkbeck College, University of London. It is a sign of what “the arts” can do. It was very good to meet John Beverley since the last time we met at the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the U.S., about 13 years ago, where he has developed his professional career in the Department of Hispanic Languages and Literatures, where I taught briefly. He is foundational figure of Hispanic and Latin American studies at the University of Pittsburgh with all the accolades and songs of glory. His career begins in the California setting in the 1960s, studying with a figure such as Herbert Marcuse, a second-generation member of the German Frankfurt School, one valid preamble of the U.S.-based cultural studies modality of “theory.” His early work is on Góngora, the most elaborate Baroque poet in the Spanish language in the Seventeeth century. We are perhaps most importantly also dealing with the “New Left” emerging in the vicinity of the Vietnam War. How is that for an interesting juxtaposition?


No more no less than 50 years later, we find him taking stock of these legacies in the context of Brexit-Britain London a couple of weeks away from the general elections between Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn. It is also the moment of a certain revival of the perennial Churchillian theme of the “special relationship” between the U.S. and the U.K. on the part of May. Where will this go? Hailing from the heart of the big imperial country, Beverley (1943-) is foundational figure in the establishment of cultural studies and subaltern studies, having had significant incursions into postcolonial studies in the important point of reference of Duke University, North Carolina, US in the 1990s, perhaps one of the most innovative and creative environments in the immediate past, from where I obtained my Ph.D. at the turn of the century. “Hispanic” is no easy or automatic label for the English-speaking world on either side of the Atlantic, neither is “Latin:” both tend to refer to the area studies of the Spanish-speaking side of the Iberian peninsula and / or its larger Latin American dimension, also inside the U.S., subaltern part of the West, European and American at the same time, domain of high culture and most typically of popular culture, historically imperial and currently mostly postcolonial in equal measure. Trained as a Hispanist, i.e. scholar in Iberian studies, his main vehicle is the field of Latin American Studies, without ever letting go of this European side of things, particularly in relation to the (neo-)Baroque, uneasy label in the domains of “letters” in the English-speaking context, it is fair to say.


But “letters” are very much summoned to the interrogation chamber of these lectures, or rather “literature.” There is less of a curiosity in “literacy.” And, what is this funny word, “theory”? It is code for critical intellectual tendencies emanating from (post-)structuralism, displacing historicist, philologist schools of thought. We are dealing with a specific set of academic cultures of scholarship and also of interdisciplinary university practice, particularly in the North Atlantic, U.S. & France & U.K., but not exclusively, and its radiation elsewhere, with its inevitable “blowback” effect reaching us today with a vengeance. Beverley’s “politics of theory” lectures, about 10 hours total, addressed a vast panorama inside which these multiple connections between academia and the world were made explicit, i.e. “studies” and larger political events in the world, particularly the inspiration of Third World and Latin America (or the South), starting from the anti-Vietnam-War opposition, independence movements in the Third World, Cuban Revolution, Sandinismo in Nicaragua, and most recently the Marea Rosada (Pink Tide) with a persistent Bolivian focus. This account was a rich, vivid, vast panorama of an intellectual life trajectory keeping track of political events happening in different parts of the world, and how could it be otherwise in our global interconnectedness?: rest assured that Empire will find its “Empire strikes back” response. It is less certain if there will be a narrative for either or both dimensions (counter-Empire) that will allow us to make sense of things. “Literature” becomes a contested signifier that is not your conventional sign in the bookshops for fiction. In this vicinity, it is the same as the interrogation of structures of power and privilege, inside and outside the institution of the university. The disciplines will dance to high culture (Theodor Adorno’s Schoenberg or Stravinsky dilemma), or to rock’ n ‘roll or pop or punk and less so to funk or hip hop or rap in the case of Beverley’s generation, admittedly a fan of television watching it for hours. Perhaps millenials and native digital creatures will raise eyebrows. The disparity between Frankfurt school theories of culture and consumerist American popular culture was detonator of things to come, at least in the case of Beverley, sitting unevenly high in the “Cathedral of Learning” (the name of the main building at the University of Pittsburgh) in the “home of the brave and the land of the free,” as the American anthem still has it. What about the transformative connection between the “disciplines” or the “studies” as one gets to find them in the libraries, classrooms and lecture halls, and political life expansively understood? This is one of the fundamental preoccupations of John Beverley displayed during these lectures.


The Desirable “Negation” or “Interruption” of Theory.

‘Theory” is short name for these “cultural” preoccupations in the vicinity of the vast institution that will not go away, the state. Politics, much more than electoral politics, extends from Vietnam to Iraq and Syria, from Johnson to Bush, Obama and Trump. The reader of other parts will add his/her favourite names and meaningful geographies. We live in tremendous moments of uncertainty, with looming Brexit for Britain, neo-conservative upsurge inside and outside the isles, and correspondingly there is a certain retreat and debilitation of “theory.” The focus was placed during these lectures on what may constitute the collective subject of politics, with or without its displays of impatience, even anger. We are looking for this subject beyond the Althusserian conception. The lectures conjured names galore of living figures (García Linera, Spivak, Butler, Wendy Brown, Kraniauskas, Mignolo), following the traces of already established canonical names (Saussure, Levi-Strauss, Lacan, Otto Bauer, Fanon, Stuart Hall, E. P. Thompson, Gramsci, Deleuze, Hardt, Negri, etc.). It was therefore a crowded imaginary house in the Gordon Square Birkbeck Cinema room. We can “nativize” this type of thought process and bring the affinity to the British school of Stuart Hall in the context of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies founded at the University of Birmingham in 1964 (Hoggart’s Uses of Literacy (1957) must also be included). In Latin America, Néstor García Canclini’s urban anthropology and consumerism is one recognizable name. There will be others. Beverley emerges from this 1960s radicalism on the West Coast of the U.S. His analogy is that of Bob Dylan going electric “transculturizing” the folk tradition resisted also by many, including the cultural theoreticians of the Communist party. Such “contamination freaked out a lot of people.” Some of that is what is wanted for cultural / subaltern studies in the realm of area studies of the foreign dimension, call it Latin American Studies among other names. Where to go but to the popular, i.e. the category of the people?: the Gramscian formula of the national-popular identity and the “failure” of the Italian case. This is the “failure” that reaches our contemporaneity with the neo-conservative focus on the working classes and the “national identity” issue which does not go away, even in our globalized times.


Latin America emerges to global consciousness in the 1960s with theories of uneven modernity, the Cuban revolution, a new kind of postcolonial sensibility, the peculiarity of the hybridity of its cultural forms (Fernando Ortiz’s transculturation, the example of the soup called “ajiaco”) responding to Fascist acculturation, and most famously with literary “magical realism” (García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, etc.) among those who still hold a predilection for the book format and the form of the novel. The history of jazz (Stan Getz is mentioned) is a kind of successful transculturation, mostly for elitist groups, perhaps. There as no reference to other artistic forms. “Literature” however remains, for the most part, at least in Beverley’s vision, complicit sign of high culture, the superstructure concomitant with what can be abbreviated as the “institution (literature, university, and perhaps most damaging, the state). If this is the “hell” to avoid at all costs, at least for the sensibility of a certain generation, a certain cultural / subaltern studies will have to go to (the theory of) popular culture wanting the (theoretical) interruption or “negation.” The suggestion is to push the closed metaphorical quality of the critical language as it marches through or perhaps falls, within institutions. The idea is to give force to the subordinate, the dominated, humiliated dimension, the unequal, the space called the “South,” the Fanonian formula of the “wretched of the earth.” The notion of (in-)equality is highlighted between those of freedom and fraternity.


We live, alas, in an impasse of “theory.” Beverley is explicit about his feelings (or “affect”) of resentment in our apparent times of conservative restoration. Perhaps “theory” is compensatory radical function for the debilitations of leftist politics kicking off at least since the Thatcher / Reagan moment. Is our moment any better? Where are we looking for global inspiration? Literature? Culture? The Momentum side of Jeremy Corby? The Andean high planes? Syriza? Podemos? Para-institutional spaces? Privatized environments? Digital domains? Where is the power of the imagination to create new worlds of alternative possibility? “Literature” finds itself in “free fall” inside the neoliberal ideology that places the principle of authority in the free market with no particular value or permanent attachment to the “humanities,” hence undergoing a corrosive effect, even liquidation within the cultural industry of the global corporate university and virtualized society at large. The suspicion is that cultural and subaltern studies may indeed have been unwitting collaborators with the system, at least on the American side of global things, since the late 1990s. The self-styled “rebels” may have woken up one tangled-up one bad morning like the characters in the film The Matrix. The Duke moment has now gone. In other words, if Spivak answered her own famous question in the negative, “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” Beverley alarm bells toll for the American-style marketing of the University: the Duke Dean who famously proclaimed that Subaltern Studies will be the success model for the global university. The whole point was never to want to find the DNA of global success in the first place. How radically different is the British system by the time this account is made public?

Have Cultural / Subaltern Studies Been Complicit with the Logic of the Reproduction of Capital?

Beverley’s critical hindsight is explicit that these early moments of cultural studies and subaltern studies may have indeed been part and parcel of the postmodernist logic of the global university in late-capitalist formulations. Pause for a minute and take a good look at the culture industry of the university system in the present moment. We may know where we have been, but do we really know where we are (not) going? Pause, rewind and fast-forward taking into account practices and discourses (not) taking place. Subaltern studies is –or at least was– a new way of thinking beyond that by emphasizing what was of inferior status, the lesser value, the foreshortened perspective of the shoe shiner level if you wish. The subaltern has hit a wall since Guha’s masterpiece, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency, with or without the refusal by a certain Latinamericanism to accept the “Indian” influence, but also the American and British influences. Beverley still defends the affinity felt among a few Latin Americanists with Asian Subalterns, at least since the Spivak moment at the University of Pittsburgh. Contaminations go in many directions in the present global present and identity politics will get tangled up and often reinforced in any binary (native and foreign for Area Studies modalities, for example). How could they not? The key thing is still to highlight the dimension of insubordination, and see how far “we” can go. But “we:” who are “we”? Tensions informing Area Studies models of global studies, or the rendering of the “foreign” political dimensions of “who we are,” are perceptible, particularly when “identities” of all sorts come round the corner to live with “us.” Cultural / subaltern studies bring into question this subject position (the “us”) and what would make it desirable against others (the “them”).


“We are all post-Marxists now, we are all post-colonialists now…”

Why have “theory” people for the most part stopped short of the state? What have they stopped short, period? How to rethink political subjectivity in the conjuncture? Where is now the point of Archimedes that will move the entire world? Is this too grandiose a statement? Beverley’s brand of cultural studies will still defend “to want to change the world,” around the notion of the totality. One needs a different kind of history that is not the typical biography of the nation state. So, in essence, Beverley’s proposition is for a kind of anti-history stance, at least against a certain conventionality of the discipline of “history.” But there is no retreat from these nouns (nation and state, not even “history” with/out the crisis of all the narratives), not even since the retreat of the Zapatistas (a certain arsenal for Subaltern studies according to Beverley). “Studies” wanted, perhaps still want, to intervene in the structural matrix of the university system in the manner of a desirable interruption, hence the emphasis on the synchronic and also on the sphere of the civil society, or the category of the “people.” The downturn of the Pink Tide governments (Centre-Left, not Red, a kind of social democracy, not in the conventional European sense) puts Beverley in a bind (“I invested his (cultural) capital in the Pink Tide, if I can mix the metaphors. I am bankrupt”). Way out? Perhaps the “politics of dehistoricized affect.” And the issue of representation of “the people” comes to the fore. Beverley is open about the points of contact with the religious domain, from an atheist perspective, and Liberation Theology’s “preferential option for the poor” (Gustavo Gutierrez). Parallels with Enrique Dussel, for example, were not explored.


Beverley’s claim is that “we are all post-Marxists, we are all post-colonialists now,” which is a provocation of sorts. This ecumenic call will find sympathy in specialized types of academic discourse and perhaps even affinity in the streets. The desire remains in the meantime one of counter-cultural heterodoxy finding no easy outlet and certainly no automatic release in Britain and elsewhere in the second decade in the new century. A certain Deleuzean tendency seems to be gone in the direction of Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri’s progeny of the best-seller Empire. Beverley holds his breath here, strikes a neo-Leninist pose accusing their followers of “infantile disorder,” whilst conceding that it perhaps shows the limitations of his own generation. We live in terse, tense conjunctures scratching our skulls as to what sort of apparition, catastrophe, epiphany or horror or none of the above, will come next, perhaps the figures of the migrant and the foreign, perhaps convincingly captured by the “modern languages,” “literature” and the “visual culture.”


“Postcolonial Criticism of the Inscription of Literature as such.”

Beverley’s open lecture, “A New Orientalism? The Question of Literature as Such and Islamic Fundamentalism” follows one of the fundamental propositions of postcolonial criticism, that modern literature itself, from the Renaissance onwards, is complicit with processes of European colonization of the world. I do not see Beverley calling himself postcolonialist, but he is, no doubt, touched by this set of issues. Stepping outside his “home” in Latin American cultural products, Beverley approaches European cultural products, specifically Michel Houellebecq’s novel Soumission (Submission), Orhan Pamuk’s novel Snow, and Michael Haneke’s film Caché (Hidden), recreating collective guilt in relation to the 1961 Seine Massacre. The answer to the question in the title of the lecture is yes: a spectre is haunting Western secular and consumer liberal democratic consciousness and it is that of the Islamic / Muslim Otherness reproduced by high forms of literature and film. Are “we” all (un-)wittingly recycling Orientalism failing to assimilate the lessons of Edward Said and others as though there was no way out but for whom? The convergence of these three European works is around the challenge to secular modernity / modernization posed by Islamic fundamentalism. Beverley synthesized the narrative of each of these cultural products caught up in what we can call the dilemma of the “Literature in the Third World” (to use the old, perhaps still valid nomenclature of the social sciences in the Cold War moment; the name of Aleksandr Dugin was conjured about worse things to come in geopolitics). Islamic fundamentalism is the conundrum that brings Rushdi and Said, Charlie Hebdo and Fanon’s words on violence together. Roberto Bolaño’s work is introduced as perfect example of Left melancholia in Latin America.

But “literature” is always already the sign of high culture in Beverley’s account and its globalization is no transcendence of colonialism but universalization of new neo-colonial forms, images or letters. Here, the French setting adds a fair amount of fear and (self-)loathing, despite Macron’s recent victory over Le Pen, with worrying signs in many settings (the Netherlands, Poland, Hungary, Germany, also Britain, and what about Russia?). Yet again, “literature” is, at least in Beverley’s axiomatic account, the opposite of emancipation: complicit (high-culture) dimension of this New Orientalism with or without declining number of readers and interpreters. If there is a different kind of literature, it was not made explicit. Is there no alternative nesting in mid- or popular culture then? No kitsch either? No schlock? Are there no sustainable examples of a different type of literature in the English and Spanish speaking parts of the world? Is such condemnation made in relation to the author’s fantasy, the rigidly expected reader response, the predictions of the market, the minority effect of consumers of literature and cinema in the “fake-news” mass media? It is not clear. Yet, the main argument in the lecture is that this form of globalism or universalism is easier to denounce than forcefully dislodge. The role of the novel cannot be disentangled from this modernity, including its peripheral variations (Turkey, multicultural Muslim France, the aftermath of the Algeria War of Independence in France). The film Caché reinforces the depressing argument stemming from the famous film Battle of Algiers (1966), allegedly used by Americans during interrogation techniques in war situations mainstreamed by films such as Boal and Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty (http://www.fernandogomezherrero.com/blog/?p=1841). My mind inevitably went to the famous article by Fredric Jameson about national allegory and the Third World and the critique by Aljad Ahmad along the lines of “othering” in the 1980s. Was Beverley updating this tension for us thirty-plus years later siding with one or the other? Was he more Jamesonian than Ahmadian or neither?


But we are all here, inevitably?, in the evanescence of the object of study called “literature,” caught up in the certain impasse of the “studies” privileged by Beverley (cultural, subaltern, gender / queer, etc.), inside perceptible mutations of the institution of the university. Would the (foreign) visual culture provide better alternatives in the strictures of Brexit and the Age of Trump? In these panoramic lectures, we saw the unequal visibility of the Americas, disturbing glimpses of the “Other” vis-a-vis Britain’s increasingly negative exchange with its own continent, at least in relation to its European Union formulations. But there is more: the Muslim / Islamic “otherness” looks at the distorting mirror image of the secular values and global modernity and the violences occurring in the Middle East and the West most visibly since 9/11 (I am finishing this piece one day after the suicide bombing in the concert of the American pop singer Ariana Grande in the city of Manchester). Final Hispanist surprise: Cervantes’s Quijote is hailed as the founding text of literary modernity making this Western interruption of the Islamic Other. There was no mention of the once celebrated coexistence of the three religions in historic Spain. Perhaps this is a receding horizon beyond our reach in our accelerated and violent timespaces of genuine global disorientation. Will our studies play catch-up?



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