Ariel reconsidered

Latinamericanism after 9/11
John Beverley
2011, Duke University Press
166 pages

FOR THOSE of us not familiar with the detailed concerns of Latin American cultural theory, John Beverley’s Latinamericanism after 9/11 might appear to offer a limited return on the investment of time necessary to read it.

After all, Beverely – whose aim in this book at root is to explore the future of the idea of Latin America in a context of fading US hegemony and penetrating globalisation – candidly concedes that he has no real answers to questions posed by changes in the region’s intellectual relationship with empire caused by the dramatic political transformations that have accompanied and responded to neoliberalism.

But that would be to misinterpret the ambitions of this highly original thinker to begin sketching out the parameters of Latin American subaltern studies in a new context in which social movements displace state politics and a vision of decentred empire, no longer linked to the territorial sources of capital, grows in attraction. This book is meant to be more about questions than about answers.

The point of departure for Beverley’s sketch – and it is a sketch upon which, one hopes, he will drape richer layers of colour in the years to come – is the multifaceted crisis posed by the shift towards the left of recent years. That crisis resides both in the geopolitical relationship between Latin America and the US, in how Latinamericanists map their own future on a rapidly shifting intellectual landscape, and within Latin America itself in terms of how the left responds to the need for new kinds of theory that meet the new challenges.

Beverley traces the evolution of Latinamericanism – Latin American studies, particularly the field of cultural and area studies – and identifies a strain of “neo-Arielist” Latin American bourgeois intellectual who repeats familiar errors in terms of arbitrating Latin American identity. It is refreshing to note that he suggests that the new formulations of Latinamericanism may have to turn to struggle for radical political change that unites both theory and politics.

While providing an archaeology of “deconstructions” in Latin American studies that contributed positively towards the reemergence of the left, he believes deconstruction may now have run out of steam.

This is evident in the personal crisis faced by an entire generation of US citizens – Beverley among them – who supported the revolutionary struggles in Latin America of the past and continue to align themselves with radical leftwing politics.

It goes without saying that a major element of the writer’s prescription, if it can be described as such, is for Latin America to define itself in an antagonistic relationship with the US, but in a complex reflection of the changing nature of the northern hegemon itself, which is fast becoming one of the hemisphere’s largest Latin American states.

It seems appropriate that in the new order, the direction of cultural travel may be reversing. Recalling the arguments of Samuel Huntington about the potential effects of Hispanic immigration in the US, Beverley writes:

“… the ‘clash of civilisations’ is now internal to the United States; or, to put this another way, the future of the United States is no longer located within the United States. In order to create a United States that can bring to fruition its immense democratic, egalitarian, and multicultural possibility, the articulation of Latin America as an alternative to, instead of an extension of, the United States is a historical necessity.”

This is a challenging book for the uninitiated, but Beverley writes with the authority and passion that can only come from real conviction – and that repays a careful reading.