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«CRITICA / REVIEW María Josefina Saldaña-Portillo, The Revolutionary Imagination in the Americas and the Age of Development. Durham: Duke UP, 2003. ...»

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History on Edge A Contracorriente


María Josefina Saldaña-Portillo, The Revolutionary Imagination in the Americas and the Age of

Development. Durham: Duke UP, 2003. xiii, 366pp.

History on Edge: Josefina Saldaña’s Revolutionary Imagination

Brian Gollnick

University of Iowa

The object of study in María Josefina Saldaña-Portillo’s The Revolutionary Imagination

in the Americas and the Age of Development is the revolutionary subject, which is to say, how the agent of social change has both been theorized and (to a lesser extent) enacted by the radical left during the second half of the twentieth century in Spanish America. Following a theoretical and historical overview in the first section of her book, Saldaña defines a dominant form of the revolutionary subject through the rural foquista model of the Cuban revolution as found in the writings of Che Guevara and in some texts by Guatemalan revolutionary Mario Payeras. She also offers a chapter on the Sandinista agrarian reform in Nicaragua during the 1980s. Her approach to these examples is critical: Che and Payeras serve as paradigms of the effort to imagine a vanguardist subject of revolutionary change based on what she sees as flawed historical principles while the Sandinistas serve as an example of how social reforms based on those principles failed. In all of these examples, Saldaña faults the radical left for imagining a revolutionary subject who addresses the popular sectors from a position of superiority defined by a modernizing social agenda and a self-conscious, modern understanding of history. For Saldaña, this model presents the subaltern as pre-modern and in need of guidance from a more enlightened social subject (the elitist agent of progress). Her critical exposition of this dominant revolutionary model is followed in the third section of the book by two examples of how the History on Edge A Contracorriente revolutionary subject has been imagined in a less hierarchical manner: the testimonial writing of Rigoberta Menchú and the communiqués of the Zapatista rebels in Chiapas.

The context which Saldaña uses to render these examples as a coherent object of analysis comes from the first section of The Revolutionary Imagination. Here Saldaña writes a critical genealogy of what she calls “developmentalism,” which she understands as a discourse that allows for the expression of distinct and even apparently antithetical paradigms of economic and social modernization. She holds that both Liberal capitalist and Marxist revolutionary models of modernization converge around precepts about the progressive nature of history. For her, the result has been similar “regimes of subjection,” by which she means the prescriptive definition of social subjectivities assigned to the subordinate classes. On this point, her scheme is indebted to Foucault’s maxim that a characteristic of discourse is not its unity, but its capacity to organize difference (that is, one may speak of “medical” discourse not in the sense of an increasingly precise delineation of trauma, disease, and their remedies, but in the sense of multiple practices for the control of the body through these phenomena). In this sense, Saldaña’s work is deeply, if not always overtly, Foucauldian, and one of the primary stakes in her book is the construction of political subjects through a variety of disciplinary practices adopted by the revolutionary left.

Her specific object of critique is what she sees as “the disturbing resemblance between [Liberal] developmental and revolutionary regimes of subjection” (85), which even in the theories of the radical left from the 1960s and 1970s led to the “privileging [of] the modern, self-reliant subject as the model of oppositional consciousness” (107). Against that flaw, her objective is to point in the direction of a counter-project in which the subject of liberation can be built in a more productive relationship with the discourse of “developmentalism.”

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Saldaña traces the origins of “developmentalism” to the Bretton-Woods conference in 1944, which, in her estimation, established a new vocabulary for international political and economic relations by replacing older terminologies of colonialism and imperialism with apparently less politicized concepts like development and underdevelopment. In two introductory chapters, Saldaña first criticizes this discourse in its Liberal, capitalist mode and then turns to what she sees as commonalities with Marxist formulations of economic development. In both paradigms, Saldaña rejects a formula of economic growth through predictable stages defined in a teleological history that produces a normative sense of the human subject best suited to function as the agent of progress and modernity. This convergence between Marxist and capitalist understandings of development provides the over-arching framework for Saldaña’s subsequent analyses of how that teleological history has failed the revolutionary left by leading to political agendas whose objectives for economic growth and social modernization have not differed greatly from the capitalist programs which MarxismLeninism sought to oppose.

Saldaña approaches her material from a perspective informed by multiple fields of inquiry, but she locates herself primarily within the effort to move American Studies towards a more openly hemispheric academic practice. Here her work follows along the lines set out by studies like José David Saldívar’s The Dialectics of Our America (1991) and more recent efforts to theorize the cultural impact of the rise of the United States to political and economic domination in the Americas. Examples would include the articles collected by Amy Kaplan and Donald Pease in Cultures of US Imperialism (1993) or those in Lisa Lowe’s and David Lloyd’s The Politics of Culture in the Shadow of Capital (1997), as well as Shelley Streeby’s recent study, American Sensations: Class, Empire, and the Production of Popular Culture (2002).

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Within the project of linking ethnic minority literatures in the US with Spanish American cultural traditions, Saldaña’s concluding chapter touches on the autobiography of Malcolm X, Gloria Andzaldúa’s Borderlands / La frontera, and Tomás Rivera’s novel, Y no se lo tragó la tierra. Saldaña criticizes Anzaldúa’s unself-critical deployment of Latin American discourses of ethnicity and mestizaje, but she finds in Malcolm X and Rivera an effort similar to what she identifies as the subalternizing of revolutionary discourse in Menchú and the Zapatistas. When set against the second and third sections of The Revolutionary Imagination, Saldaña’s conclusions can be taken as an effort to distance Anzaldúa from what might be called a “Third World” or subaltern position of enunciation while claiming such a status for Malcolm X and Rivera. The purpose of this gesture is clearer in the case of Anzaldúa than in that of Malcom X and Rivera. Borderlands / La frontera is too often taken up in an uncritical way by scholars seeking to work in border or ethnic studies without an adequate understanding of the Latin American discourses (especially those of Mexican nationalism) that inform some of Alzaldúa’s key gestures. It has also been taken up uncritically by Latin American scholars like Walter Mignolo, who has pointed to Anzaldúa as a primary example of what he calls “border gnosis.” The stakes of delineating a historical or even discursive / structural resemblance between Rigoberta Menchú, the Zapatistas, Malcolm X, and Tomás Rivera are less clear. The goal of broadening American Studies is laudable, but on this level The Revolutionary Imagination seems to point primarily to the limitations of inter-regional comparisons when commonalities are established on a high level of historical or theoretical abstraction to the detriment of more specific contexts.

On the broad canvas of issues that Saldaña hopes to address, her book also represents an effort to rethink the political and social history of the second half of the twentieth century in a

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hemispheric or even global sense. There she is concerned with helping to write a critical narrative that sees the United States not as a primary agent for the diffusion of freedom, but as the central pole in a world economy whose progressive expansion forms the engine behind a model of development whose acceptance across the spectrum of Cold War ideological conflicts can now be addressed in the wake of the Soviet collapse. Finally, although Saldaña does not explicitly locate her work within this debate, The Revolutionary Imagination can be seen as an intervention in Latin American subaltern studies. To date, Latin American subaltern studies has been divided between historians, such as Gilbert Joseph and Florencia Mallon, who have sought to identify interactions between elite and popular politics, and cultural critics, such as Ileana Rodríguez and John Beverley, who have asserted the need for a self-critical subalternist practice in order to deconstruct the failures of elite discourses. Saldaña’s work engages the same theoretical matrix that informs Rodríguez and Beverley’s project (particularly Gayatri Spivak), but in the second half of The Revolutionary Imagination, Saldaña addresses how elements of a popular social agenda and historical experience can be made visible within structures that bridge subaltern and dominant forms of discourse. While her analysis of these structures is not entirely convincing, Saldaña’s effort to assert this second research agenda marks a space of convergence between social science theory and fieldwork, historical research, and cultural criticism. On this point, Saldaña brings the focus to a new path for Latin American cultural criticism.

Unfortunately, the few steps she takes down that path carry an uninformed reader dangerously close to the edge of an historical precipice in which important concerns fade from view. The result is a genealogy of the Spanish American radical left that in some cases foreshortens its objects of study almost beyond recognition. This foreshortening finally produces a serious question about the very area in which Saldaña seeks to make her intervention, namely, the

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subject position from which a counter-hegemonic history of the Americas can best be imagined and the methodological or theoretical framework necessary to identify that subject position.

The Revolutionary Imagination seems to have in mind a reader largely unfamiliar with Spanish American cultural and political history. The first section summarizes important scholarship on economic development theories and policies, but it adds little to work by figures like Susan George and Fabrizio Sabelli, Jorge Larráin, and especially Arturo Escobar, all of whom contribute in important ways to Saldaña’s general framework. Moreover, there are weaknesses even in Saldaña’s deployment of these sources. For example, she draws quotes from Marx out of Larráin’s Theories of Development (1989) in order to support her argument that Marxism and capitalism converge in their understanding of colonialism. The passages in question are frequently used to argue that Marx supported colonialism, but Saldaña fails to note that Larráin himself quotes this material as part of an argument that they represent one moment in the development of Marx’s thinking. Contrary to Saldaña’s position, Larráin concludes that understanding Marx’s approach to colonialism requires locating these examples within a broader trajectory. Overall, with the exception of her chapter on Sandinista agrarian reform, Saldaña’s interest in “regimes of subjection” seems finally to serve as a gesture to authorize textual analysis as a tool to study how the subject of popular history is interpellated in a variety of texts.

On this point, her project seems less an extension of existing scholarship on development theory than an effort to engage with a different and not entirely compatible object of study.

A danger of miscommunication arises from the uneven fit between Saldaña’s definition of her project and the sociological or historical framework that she draws for it. This danger is most apparent when Saldaña’s elaborates a dominant model for the Spanish American revolutionary subject. She relies initially on Che Guevara’s memoirs of the guerrilla war in

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