Millenarian labyrinth

JAN Embers of the Past COVEREmbers of the Past: Essays in Times of Decolonization
Javier Sanjinés C, translated by David Frye
2013, Duke University Press
219 pages, paperback

THE publication of Rescoldos del pasado in La Paz in 2009 – translated here as Embers of the Past – was a timely effort to tap into the rise in indigenous political consciousness in Latin America and reflected greater scholarly appreciation of how this challenges the Euro-American narrative of modernity based on a linear notion of progress.

Javier Sanjinés dissects the concepts of the homogeneous nation and linear time cherished within modernism arguing, as have others, for the need to reclaim indigenous subjectivity, and taking as his focus the Bolivian and Andean past.

The author offers an interesting critique of co-existing metaphors that have become central to this debate, progress and decolonisation. It is largely his approach to this theme that is novel, providing a series of reflections on pressing questions posed by the awkward coexistence of modern perspectives and millenarian memories.

Where this book falters, however, may be in the blunt assumptions it makes about Europe and concepts of nationhood in the region, which appear to be based on sweeping generalisations about empire and nationhood that are taken up uncritically by Walter Mignolo in his Foreword.

Mignolo’s introduction, for example, leaves some disconcerting questions about the approach that has been taken here to European history and contemporaneity, which both scholars it would seem regard, first, as driven by an homogenous, almost mono-ethnic imperial reflex, and second, as untouched by centrifugal and highly diverse ethnic forces.

Mignolo writes, for example, that “Western European states (monarchic and secular) were not colonized; they enacted imperial expansion and colonialism” (p xiii); that Sanjinés argues that the nation-state “worked in Europe (and in the United States) but it was more problematic in the Spanish American colonies” (p xviii); that “In Europe, the ‘imagined community’ was possible because of the homogeneous national composition of each state” (p xix); and that “After the concept of a plurinational state was introduced in the Andes, the original European nation-state should be properly called a ‘mono national state’” (p xix)

One bridles at such perplexing statements and must ask whether Mignolo has ever heard of Ireland, Scotland, Catalonia, País d’Òc, Brittany or the Basque Country and so on; whether he appreciates the very real distinctions that must be made between Anglo-Saxon and continental European imperial trajectories and perspectives; whether he considers the patchwork quilt out of which modern Italy and Germany, for example, were very painfully forged as being genuine models of statehood for the (by then) relatively consolidated Latin American republics; and whether he is aware that both the United Kingdom and Spain are longstanding “plurinational” states.

Moreover, these oversights are compounded by the focus on Europe as the source of the notion of progress that Sanjinés pugnaciously takes on. The idea belongs largely to the Anglo-Saxon colonial tradition and its racist, civilising ideology whose principal champion since the mid-19th century at least has been the US, which has been applying such templates to Latin America for far longer than the 1960 offered as the moment in which social sciences “arrived” south of the border.

The irony of these positions is that they betray a more contemporary modernism emanating from the US itself which has, since the second world war, employed a geopolitical logic that treats Europe as a single, undifferentiated whole, one that has crept steadily into popular culture to such a degree that it is no longer unusual for American citizens to distinguish between the countries of the region but to refer to it as, merely, “Europe”.

Nonetheless, Embers of the Past has its eloquent moments and still represents a revival of the essay as a form, based on the author’s own intellectual experiences and his understanding of the role essay writing can play in developing refreshingly alternative critiques. As Mignolo points out, the last memorable essays in Latin America were written before the 1960s – predating the latest project of development and modernisation launched by the US based on disciplinarity, scientific pretension, and the quest for objective truth.

By bringing it back in this way, Sanjinés is at least making a statement about the region and its difficult – and doggedly post-colonial – relationship with the north.