Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Americas? New World?

As promised a couple of posts ago, this post will establish a context for my book project's central thesis. I'll keep it brief here in the post proper but, should anyone have questions, I'll be happy to explain and develop these ideas in the Comments section. But part of that development, by way of application of these ideas and their value in negotiating some difficult issues in American studies, will come in my next post as I discuss the idea of Aztlan.

Edmundo O'Gorman's book, The Invention of America, says it best: that, as Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes summarizes its argument, for Europeans the Americas had to be imagined before they could be settled. What follows is the story of that "invention." In a sense, there's always been a Europe, an Africa, an Asia; that is, they've never not existed in a collective unconscious for Europeans. But when Columbus's reports gradually indicated to people that what he had found was not Asia but previously-unknown landmasses, there was not in place a way of thinking about them. The Bible, at that time taken to be a fairly complete book of the earth, makes no mention of lands other than those I named; it's in part because of that fact that Columbus was so adamant in his insistence that he had found Asia. How to talk about them, then, without a) calling the accuracy of the Bible into question and b) making it theologically acceptable for Europeans to settle in these lands? Peter Martyr was the man who coined the term "New World," the term which, for better or for worse, made it possible for Europeans to colonize these lands in their imagination.
But: as I've done my own reading and thinking about this hemisphere and its cultures and literatures, it gradually became clear to me that, without denying the very real and consequential history of the conquest and colonization of the Americas, the very term "New World" and its continued existence suggested that it also said something important about this side of the globe. I came to realize that that term was an oxymoron, even as understood when it was first coined: "New" suggested unknown; "world," though, referred to that space given by God to humans to live on and so means something quite old. That tension, then, suggested to me that it might be useful to make a distinction between the Americas as a historical space and the New World as an imagined space, as an example of what Foucault calls heterotopias (I should note here that my first encounter with this term was in the introduction to Foucault's The Order of Things). Lest anyone ask, well, why use a European term to talk about this imagined space, I would argue that, due to New World's oxymoronic quality, it can't, properly speaking, be colonized by any existing culture, whether colonizer or colonized or enslaved. We can speak of it, we can get a glimpse of its existence when we encounter texts that don't seem to square with the dominant historical narratives of the Americas, but that's as close as we can come. Moreover, though it is a European term, I detect no whiff of stigma about it in this hemisphere.
I will pursue that distinction between "America" and "New World" later as I discuss an essay I've just finished reading that surveys the several ways Chicano/a writers have talked about their mythical homeland Aztlan and why those ways are finally unsatisfactory.

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