Whose identity is it anyway?

National Identities and Sociopolitical Changes in Latin America is a brave attempt to bridge the divide between cultural studies and social science


National Identities and Socio-Political Changes in Latin America
Edited by Mercedes F. Durán-Cogan and Antonio Gómez-Moriana
2001, Routledge
463 pages

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

ACADEMICS trying to build bridges between literary or cultural studies and the empirical social sciences face a daunting challenge, one to which Mercedes Durán-Cogan and Antonio Gómez-Moriana have risen courageously. This edited collection draws attention, above all, to the need for an analytical model that demonstrates the feasibility of an interdisciplinary approach.

Strong contributions outnumber weak in this collection of 13 essays. Of particular note is Victor Armony’s analysis of presidential discourse in the first decade of post-authoritarian Argentina. Armony weaves quantitative and qualitative analysis together with skill to examine an ideological project in the context of a radical economic transformation.

The analysis of the 16th-century world market in silver by Dennis Flynn and Arturo Giraldez will be of particular interest to readers impressed by the rapidity of China’s rise up the agenda of the southern cone economies. Flynn and Giraldez use the heavy weight of historical evidence to subvert Eurocentric economic myths, drawing attention to the formative role played by the Asian market in European colonial expansion. James Cisneros analyses the Argentine military’s vision of national identity and considers a broader question: how identity is constructed by a centralised institutional apparatus, a key theme in Latin America.

Theoretical contributions include that of Jorge Larraín Ibañez, whose exploration of the evolution of the concept of identity provides a valuable first chapter to this volume. Mercedes Durán-Cogan investigates the epic poetic genre in a refreshingly lucid way, and Antonio Gómez-Moriana’s examination of autobiographical writing contains some important insights.

Literary and cultural studies canon

However, this collection dwells less than expected on the relationship between sociopolitical change and the formation of identity, and more on the ontology that is so prominent in literary, cultural and discourse theory. The emphasis upon the theoretical canon of literary and cultural studies cannot be concealed – although the contributions within this book from within sociology and economic history that are empirically stronger are, in fact, the most valuable to the average reader. The theoretical objectives of the book might have been strengthened by the incorporation of at least one essay reflecting on the methodological issues confronting the study of identity in Latin America. Nor is there any real attention to theoretical approaches from within the study of nationalism, the most fertile source of research on national identity.

Among this collection’s stated aims is to confront the problem of ‘canonised knowledge’: the tendency of cultural scholars to ignore political and economic texts, and of political and economic scholars to ignore cultural tradition. While it weaves together a broad range of disciplinary approaches from philosophy to psychoanalytic theory, sociocriticism to architecture, in an attempt to do this, it leaves one none the wiser about the best methodological way to proceed through a complex terrain inhabited by competing disciplines.

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books