Sunday, December 07, 2008

New World babies as articulations of cultural difference

Note: This is heading in the direction of a preface or introduction to the book project. The image below is its starting place, at any rate. Would reading this make you want to read more? Comments welcome and encouraged.

Detail from a panel of Diego Rivera's mural at the Palacio Nacional, Mexico City. Click to enlarge. Photo taken by the Mrs.

In a panel filled with figures, most appearing in full or partial profile, all going about the business of colonizing/being colonized, this infant, suspended in a plain rebozo from its mother's shoulder, its skin slightly lighter than its mother's, slightly darker than that of the soldier I assume is its father, gazes fixedly at something just above and beyond the viewer's left shoulder. It is difficult to say what accounted for my standing in front of this image for some minutes when my wife and I visited the palacio (Mexico's national capitol building) back in October: whether it's that the baby is the only figure in the panel's foreground looking in the viewer's direction yet not quite returning the viewer's gaze; or the color of its eyes--two tiny stones of aquamarine in a sea of reds and browns and yellows. Or both.

Though I did not have this image in mind when I worked on my dissertation, in a sense it is precisely because of what we see in it that I chose that dissertation's subject: an attempt to discuss historical and fictional narratives of consensual miscegenation as tropes of New World culture more generally. It is not merely that individual mestizos, métis, and mulattoes are, to borrow Joel Williamson's phrase, new people; it is that the culture that has emerged in this hemisphere is also, I argue, something demonstrably different from the European, African and indigenous cultures that contributed to its creation. Analogous to the baby's not quite gazing directly at the viewer, New World culture is simultaneously familiar and strange--and, moreover, not one fully explained by most mainstream critical theories of culture.

As an example of what I mean by that last statement, here is a passage from the introduction to Homi Bhabha's The Location of Culture, coincidentally published in the year I defended my dissertation:

The move away from the singularities of 'class' or 'gender' as primary conceptual and organizational categories, has resulted in an awareness of the subject positions--of race, gender, generation, institutional location, geopolitical locale, sexual orientation--that inhabit any claim to identity in the modern world. What is theoretically innovative, and politically crucial, is the need to think beyond narratives of originary and initial subjectivities and to focus on those moments or processes that are produced in the articulation of cultural differences. These 'in-between' spaces provide the terrain for elaborating strategies of selfhood--singular or communal--that initiate new signs of identity, and innovative sites of collaboration, and contestation, in the act of defining society itself.

It is in the emergence of the intersticies--the overlap and displacement of domains of difference--that the intersubjective and collective experience of nationness, community interest, or cultural value are negotiated. How are subjects formed 'in-between', or in excess of, the sum of the 'parts' of difference (usually intoned as race/class/gender. etc.)? How do strategies or representation or empowerment come to be formulated in the competing claims of communities where, despite shared histories of deprivation and discrimination, the exchange of values, meanings and priorities may not always be collaborative and dialogical, but may be profoundly antagonistic, conflictual and even incommensurable? (1-2, emphasis mine)

Readers of Bhabha will recognize in this passage an implicit articulating of the concerns at stake in his concept of hybridity, an idea that has great resonance--and potential pitfalls--for the citizens of the Western Hemisphere1, and one I am largely sympathetic with. But, the bolded passage strikes me, a citizen of this hemisphere and someone who attempts to understand and write about its culture, as not quite speaking to our cultural condition. I would argue that it is precisely in "those moments or processes that are produced in the articulation of cultural difference"--phenomena that Bhabha calls on critics to examine so as to be "theoretically innovative and politically crucial"--that we find the New World's "narratives of original and initial subjectivities": the very sorts of texts Bhabha argues we "need to think beyond." To put this in terms of the baby in Rivera's mural, Bhabha's stance is that we already know where babies come from. I contend that, in this hemisphere, we're still trying to figure out how to articulate where this particular baby comes from--and what those origins tell us about ourselves as a culture.

(If you're still interested, the rest is here.)

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