Colony of intellect

Disciplinary Conquest: US Scholars in South America, 1900–1945
Ricardo D Salvatore
2016, Duke University Press
329 pages, paperback

THERE have been at least three “conquests” in what is now called Latin America. The first was, of course, the Conquest proper, an overtly imperial European military exercise that followed the voyages of Columbus and gave birth to modernity.

The “second conquest” of Latin America was ecological, referring both to the impact upon the landscape, flora and fauna in the region of European conquest, but also of the subsequent development of the extractive export economy (coffee, henequen, rubber, oil etc), perhaps best captured in a book under this title by Steven Topik and Allen Wells.

The third conquest, however, is one that is far less historically discernible, but more far-reaching in almost every sense for having shaped the ways we understand both those earlier conquests and the region today in almost every respect. This has been what Ricardo Salvatore refers to as the “intellectual conquest” of Latin America by US scholarship, and the intimate relationship of that scholarship with the informal empire established in this region by the northern hegemon.

Disciplinary Conquest is an important contribution to the historiography of Latin American Studies itself, providing compelling insights into the origins of this discipline in the first half of the 20th century, and how these cannot be divorced from Washington’s pursuit of neocolonial domination in South America in that period.

As the author notes, the consolidation of Latin American Studies has often been erroneously dated to the early 1960s and understood as a byproduct of the Cuban Revolution. It is easy in retrospect to see why: the dynamics of the Cold War came to dominate every exchange and intervention in the geopolitics of the region for several generations, and we are still living their consequences.

But Salvatore argues convincingly, by exploring the work of five key and influential scholars in the period 1900–45, that the intellectual apparatus of this field was already well established by the time of the Cuban Revolution. The author is interested in particular in the relationship between growing US scholarly engagement with Latin America during the long period of “pan-Americanism” prior to the second world war and foreign policy.

If the motives of the scholars themselves may have been purely intellectual, and did not in themselves reinforce grander metanarratives of evolution and progress, the knowledge they created and the resulting framework of understanding that this imposed on the emergent discipline of Latin American Studies were of prima facie value to US diplomats and businessmen as they sought ot extend their influence throughout this region. Nonetheless, the author also notes that some of the scholars he examines tended to articulate expert knowledge as useful for imperial hegemony.

Salvatore’s principal argument is relatively straightforward, and chimes with an existing corpus of theoretical literature on the broader relationship between knowledge and the exrcise of power. He argues that increasing knowledge across a range of disciplines purportedly developed the basis of a scientific vision of the subcontinent that businessmen and foreign-policy experts deemed necessary for the US as an emerging power: “Regional knowledge was a precondition for the construction of hemispheric influence and power.” [p 5]

He also makes an observation to support this vocation: that while the existence of a vast institutional apparatus dedicated to learning about Latin America is notable in the US, there is simply no reciprocity within Latin America itself, where higher education institutions have not made a proportional investment in the development of US studies.

Alongside its direct relevance in the Americas, this book makes a valuable contribution to a broader understanding of the relationship between empire and knowledge. What makes the US case instructive is the form of hegemony it has established in the Americas, accommodating the modalities of both formal and informal empire in which direct control and colonisation – in South America at least – was largely out of the question.

This sub-region was considered a “land of opportunity” by the US business and diplomatic classes, and interventions were imperial largely in the sense that they represented a desire for US cultural superiority.

Salvatore writes: “Scholars have examined the relationship between knowledge and empire, chiefly within the context of territorial empires, showing that knowledge provides valuable services in the governability of colonial situations. Less attention has been devoted tp the formation of regional knowledge in neocolonial situtations, where hegemony takes the form of economic, technological, and cultural supremacy.” [p 15]

For any Latin Americanist frustrated at the all-pervasive influence US scholarly frameworks continue to exert upon so many areas of Latin American Studies – from political theory to security scholarship, and usually beginning and ending with a notion of “American modernity” – this book offers a candid way of addressing this stranglehold through a constructive, historiographical approach. It offers much positive food for thought by speaking truth to power.

Perhaps, as a result, the best message that we can send out to Latin America’s most innovative and energetic scholars themselves is: don’t get angry, get even.