On Charles Hatfield’s The Limits of Identity. Politics and Poetics in Latin America (Austin: U of Texas P, 2015). By Alberto Moreiras


This is an important book that, in its understated and unassuming rhetoric, actually establishes a generational challenge of fundamental importance to the totality of Latin Americanist discourse in the humanities. Beyond that, it subverts the very basis of Latin American cultural self-understanding since at least José Martí´s “Nuestra América.”

Hatfield organizes his book on the basis of four chapters, with a short Introduction and an equally short Coda, although both of the latter are significant.   The chapters cover four master concepts, namely, Culture, Beliefs, Meaning, and Memory.   Through them Hatfield offers a relentless critique of the Latin Americanist cultural tradition and its bearing on the present. He also makes a historical argument, hence a genealogical analysis of how the apparent truisms of the present came to be what they are.   His theoretical sources are to be found in a soft North American pragmatism, fundamentally indebted to the work of Walter Benn Michaels and Stanley Fish in particular.   It is a politically committed book whose urgency derives from the fact that, as the book establishes, contemporary literary-cultural reflection, or at least its mainstream, has lost its bearings and fails to realize that, contrary to its own claims, it will have no impact on “correcting the region´s most grievous injustices.”

The Introduction presents an idea of universalism as neither a belief nor an ideology, but as an irreducible dimension of any truth statement as such. It is because truth claims assert themselves as universally valid that there can (and should) be disagreement.   If truth could be taken to be always and in every case particularist, that is, only valid for a given location or site of enunciation, then the very notion of disagreement would become useless and incomprehensible. For instance, the very opposition to racism, sexism, or colonialism that a certain number of Latin Americanist thinkers, if not most, would consider their own privilege or obligation against Eurocentric impositions, Hatfield shows, is already universalist, and it would be considerably weakened if we were to claim that it is only the result of the particularism of their victims.   In other words, it is not because of “our” particular identity but because of a belief in the universal wrongness of racism that we can successfully and persuasively oppose racism.

So that universalism already commits us from the moment we have beliefs. Universalism is therefore not a particular form of ideology, much less a Eurocentric one, but rather a constitutive and irreducible dimension of everyday speech that cannot be disavowed without a cost. The cost is the reduction of thinking to an identitarian program–we, in other words, would not endorse a truth because we believe in it, only because it is ours or we have come to be persuaded that it is. The consequence is nefarious: “to invoke identity as the reason for a belief in a disagreement is to actually end the disagreement by refuting the universality that enables it” (“refuting” does not seem the right word here, as there is no refutation at play: “refusing” seems more like it).

It just happens to be the case that Latinamericanism in general has been throughout its history essentially preoccupied with “preserving, no matter in how contradictory or tense a manner, an idea of Latin America as the repository of a cultural difference that would resist assimilation by Eurocentric modernity.” The way this has been done–the rhetoric that sustains the concern for cultural difference–has followed patterns of anti-universalism that could only lead to identitarian dead ends. “Latin Americanism´s crucial work involves converting what is true or false into what is yours and mine.”   The net result of this, in practical terms, is not a resounding denunciation of cultural oppression, or even a brave refusal of racism, but rather the trap of proposing a “liberationist” discourse that “implicates itself in many of the same discourses that it sought to repudiate.”   When Doctor Francisco Laprida, in Jorge Luis Borges´s “Poema conjetural,” experiences a “secret joy” at the moment of his violent death, the complications of Sarmiento´s inaugural discourse on “civilization versus barbarism” are rendered moot: “liberation” is for Laprida, as for so many Latin Americanists, a mere return to atavistic identification with a tellurian force and a more than dubious authenticity, from which nothing but disaster can ensue.

If “Laprida´s demise at the hands of gauchos is, in a sense, the fulfillment of what Latin Americanist thinking ever since José Martí´s ‘Nuestra América’ has desired,” Chapter 1 offers an analysis of “Nuestra América” whose main thrust is the recognition that Martí´s discourse, “far from offering a post-racial vision,” “reinstates the concept of race that it repudiates” at a cultural not biological level.   It also happens to be a reinstatement that has become functional to the neoliberal regime of rule, which thrives on cultural difference as a substitute for economic equality.   Given Martí´s status as a cultural hero, this chapter is bound to be controversial if not fiercely polemical, and it is of course part of the merits of this book that Hatfield is courageous enough to risk the cost of debunking civilizational figures.

Chapter 2 deals with yet another cultic intellectual presence over the last century, namely, José Enrique Rodó, whose Ariel has been described as “the most important Latin American essay.” In Ariel Rodó inverts Sarmiento´s dichotomy and claims that Latin America, far from being the site of an impotent failure of civilization, should emerge as the true repository of spirit–the culmination, not the limit place, of Western civilization.   But Rodó does this through a reaffirmation of “nuestroamericanismo,” that is, through the repeated assertion, which organizes the core of his essay, that a pursuit of identitarian strategies counts as the highest example of thought, and the only one available to Latin Americans.   Hatfield complements his analysis of Rodó with the analysis of a book that would seem to be its direct antagonist, namely, Rodolfo Kusch´s Indigenous and Popular Thinking in América, to the extent that, if Rodó´s target audience is the Latin American liberal-criollo class, Kusch places his civilizational bet on a recovery of indigenous cosmovisions. But Hatfield persuasively shows that Kusch shares with Rodó “the idea that the only arguments that we can make for or against beliefs are that they are ours–or not.”   An understated aspect of this chapter happens to reside in the fact that today the field of Latin American studies could be easily defined as the combat between “arielistas” and “decolonials,” which is still a combat between Rodó and Kusch, were it not for the marginal if persistent existence of a number of dissidents (Hatfield himself, for instance).   One of the arguments that Hatfield deploys with devastating effect is that this kind of thought is circular and therefore vicious: “Seminal thinking is the thinking to which Kusch wants to return and simultaneously the theory that makes available that return.”   And he shows that the contradictions internal to current-day proposals for a return to indigenous thinking have a terrible price, if it all comes down to “lining up your philosophy with your skin:” “all of this in no way means that it is impossible or intrinsically contradictory to make a case for indigenous thinking, or any mode of thinking. It means only making a choice between the commitment to indigenous thinking on the one hand, and difference on the other.”

Chapter 3 opens up the frame of reference and avoids the concentration of the analysis into one master figure, like Martí or Rodó. In this chapter Hatfield goes through a number of more contemporary critics and writers in order to show the pervasiveness of the nuestroamericanist ideology in the present. He starts with a masterful reading of Borges´ “Pierre Menard: Author of Don Quixote,” examines a number of critical takes on it, seeks to establish its correspondence with pragmatic conclusions, and moves on to deploy those conclusions in the context of the work of people such as Roberto Fernández Retamar, Ricardo Kalimán, Octavio Paz, and Doris Sommer.   Through all of it Hatfield argues that identitarianism must recognize an impossible resistance in the literary text, which may point us in the direction of a denunciation of literature as insufficient for the political tasks it is expected to perform.   But it can equally point in the direction of literature “as a site of disagreement, rather than of difference, and in so doing” show that “literature gives us a model for a better politics.”

Chapter 4, on “Memory,” is one of the most original and brilliant in the book.   Taking its departure from the disturbing thought that neoliberalism has already managed to enthrone cultural difference and has hence deprived the contestatory dimension of mainstream Latinamericanism of any conceivable ground, it moves on to an analysis (again, understated and unassuming, but very powerful) of the critical constellation associated with “politics of memory.”   In other words, this chapter analyses “the shift away from culture and towards history and memory as the cathected objects for Latin American identitarian thinking.”   But history and memory are not the same thing: if history refers to knowledge, memory refers to experience. The thought that we could rehearse the memory of experiences we have not had is at the core of memory thinking over the last two generations of Latin Americanism.   And it is a deeply limiting thought, because the project of turning history into memory cannot be distinguished from the project of turning knowledge into identity.   Hatfield makes a historical argument that goes back to the 1960´s and the beginnings of testimonial writing in Latin America, through the rise of oral history as epistemic practice in the 1980s, through José Rabasa´s radically nihilistic account of the Acteal massacre in the 1990s (“truth and falsity do not matter for Rabasa, because the idea of truth makes identity irrelevant”), and into the curious conflation of apparently irreconcilable subjectivist thought in contemporary critique (Beatriz Sarlo and John Beverley are the examples in this section).   But Eduardo Galeano, Gustavo Verdesio, Diana Taylor, and Raymond L. Williams are also gently brought to task, together with Carmen Boullosa.   All of these authors are of course only examples of a widespread metonymy in the field.   It is part of the elegance of the book´s rhetoric that the author lets the reader draw her own conclusions as to the general state of the field, including the position taken by some of the more popular or well-known critics that are barely mentioned and not frontally analyzed.

The Coda on New Latin Americanism is essentially an analysis of John Beverley´s recent Latin Americanism After 9-11.   Hatfield presents the thought that, on Beverley´s own premises, if the neoliberal market has brought about “a play of differences that is not subject, in principle, to the dialectic of master and slave,” then the current predicament “equals a game-over on two counts for Latin Americanism itself. First, if ideologies of Latin Americanism at heart have always been about cultural dehierarchization, which is just another way of saying identitarian anti-universalism, then the recognition of cultural dehierarchization´s hegemony leaves it without anything to do. Second, the fact that Latin Americanism´s project of cultural dehierarchization was achieved by and in neoliberalism poses the question of whether that project ever–but especially now–counts as a progressive form of political resistance to capitalism.”   This is the fundamental impasse today, and of course Hatfield shows that Beverley´s counterproposal does not work: “Beverley´s new Latin Americanism, boiled down, is almost like a definition of the old one,” which is quite unfortunate.   There is a lot of genuinely new work to do, and it can change the game, but only if the playing field, Hatfield suggests, is rebuilt from scratch.



2 thoughts on “On Charles Hatfield’s The Limits of Identity. Politics and Poetics in Latin America (Austin: U of Texas P, 2015). By Alberto Moreiras

  1. Thanks for this review, Alberto. I am looking in reading Hatfield’s book in the upcoming weeks. So, without having read the book I am mostly interested in the distinction drawn in chapter 4 between history and memory. I do not know if I cannot grasp it, or if I disagree with it. I would put it like this: to say critique the memoralization of history seems to take for granted that history is already encrypted, or as we have discussed, also part of a process of metaphoricity. To this end, is not history already memory of itself? Memory would be asymmetrical to identity.

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