Taking stock of exchange

Appropriating Theory: Angel Rama’s Critical Work
José Eduardo González
2017, University of Pittsburgh Press
232 pages, paperback

NARRATIVE transculturation is a complex, if influential and rich idea developed by the influential Uruguayan literary critic Ángel Rama, which nonetheless is often associated most closely with the Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortíz.

Ortíz employed the notion of “transculturation” to describe cultural exchange in Latin America based primarily upon the loss off cultural elements indigenous to a region.

However, although Rama – one of the region’s most influential but under-studied literary theorists – appropriated the term, his understanding of it was somewhat different, placing less of an emphasis on synthesis and more upon how it could reflect the use by Latin American writers of what is on offer from imperial culture to develop their own critique of cultural modernisation.

Rama’s notion was, in essence, an important exploration of the Latin American intellectual appropriation of European thought in order to develop a more truly indigenous perspective on literature, but also other cultural phenomena.

However, author José Eduardo González goes much further than explaining how the thought of Rama – whose life was cut short by a plane crash in 1983 – diverged from that of Ortíz, by arguing that in fact he had developed his own theory of transculturation before encountering the work of the Cuban in the first place.

He had done so, argues González, under the formative influence of the German cultural critic Walter Benjamin, whose own eclectic work was a profound inspiration on the Uruguayan.

Appropriating Theory is, therefore, as much an exploration of that European influence as it is an exposition of Rama’s ideas, which the writer points out have not been scrutinised with the effort that they deserve, particularly by Latin Americanists themselves.

As González notes, Rama was so intrigued by the work of his predecessor that he was learning German in the last years of his life in order to have direct access to Benjamin’s writings that had not been translated into French or Spanish.

Appropriating Theory offers not only a good introduction to this Uruguayan thinker but also to the ways in which European thought was pronounced applicable – or indeed, in the case of Rama, often inapplicable – to Latin American conditions, but nonethless offered a valuable seam of raw material with which to develop indigenous theory.