Cultural Exceptionalism involves the claim that a particular people, nation, or region of the world possesses an especially distinctive cultural identity or unique historical destiny. In the most trivial sense, all cultures are different from one another, and from this perspective exceptionalism might be merely a default position. The idea of culture itself, in fact, might be exceptionalist in this broader sense. The same might be said of the idea of the nation, but not all nationalism finds expression in this characteristically literary discourse. The Spanish poet and critic Dámaso Alonso, for example, speaks of Spain’s “necesidad dramática de una expresión diferenciada, nacional” (758; dramatic necessity for a differentiated, national expression). His contention is not just that Spain is unique among nations, but that its difference necessitates a dramatically differentiated cultural expression.
Any appeal to the exceptional, distinctive, differentiated, distinctive, particular, or unique, associated with a nation or people, is likely to be exceptionalist. Such appeals are often essentialist, even when they appear to be based on history rather than on nature. (Other varieties of identity politics, based on gender, sexual identity, or other differential factors apart from ethnicity and nationality, follow a similar logic.) The rhetorical structure of any particular set of such claims—whether made on behalf of Spain, Ireland, Cuba, Mexico, Brazil, the United States, or Japan—will fall into predictable patterns. These patterns comprise a poetics, or a system of tropes that gives structure to a particular discourse. This term, of course, also refers to the theory of poetry itself, and modern poets from Yeats and Williams to Cavafy, Lorca, Lezama Lima, and Paz have often linked their own poetics to cultural nationalism.
A comparative approach encourages a skeptical view of exceptionalism generally: the mere existence of more than one cultural nationalism of this type casts doubt on all of them. The assumption that cultures (and the claims made on their behalf) are inherently incommensurable prevents meaningful comparisons and hence reinforces the logic of this discourse. There is a danger, then, in debating exceptionalist claims one by one or in getting mired down in an overly nuanced analysis of any given version. Too much detail or nuance—while desirable in other contexts—might detract from the overarching goal of defining the characteristics shared by exceptionalist narratives as a general category. This refusal of nuance seems counterintuitive, given the immense value accorded to the distinctive and the unique in humanistic research. Nevertheless, there is also value in seeing how claims for uniqueness follow predictable patterns.
The thirteen axioms that follow outline a general theory of exceptionalism. These axioms take the form of “prophecy after the event” in that they make predictions based on the shape that this discourse has already taken. Cultural projects that deviate too sharply from these predictions will probably not be classified as exceptionalist in any significant sense. The first four axioms concern the literariness of exceptionalist rhetoric. The next three have to do with its ideological causes and effects. The remainder explore the curiously paradoxical nature of the beast, including its reversals of negative and positive poles of value, its tensions with univeralism or the ideology of “normality,” and its peculiar status within discourses of modernity.
Since this essay had its origin as part of a book-chapter on a lecture by Federico García Lorca, Juego y teoría del duende, it is grounded in the study of Spanish exceptionalism, and in the specific example of Lorca himself. A general theory of the poetics of cultural exceptionalism can be grounded in Lorca’s lecture because it is a typical example a kind of discourse found elsewhere in Spanish literature and intellectual history, and in other formulations of this variety of poetics found elsewhere. (A close reading of Lorca’s essay in terms of his own poetics is a complementary task. ) The aim here, then, is to predict what Lorca’s duende might look like from the point of view of a “comparative exceptionalism.” American cultural and literary exceptionalism, both in the United States and in Latin America, forms part of this comparative framework. Needless to say, other projects of cultural exceptionalism on the Iberian peninsular itself (Basque, Catalan, Galician, Portuguese, etc...), also bear a direct relation to similar discourses in Spain and Latin America. Cultural exceptionalism is also strong on the periphery of Europe: Greece, Ireland... Taken together, these varieties of cultural nationalism might describe the way that exceptionalism would look like in the fictional nation of Exceptionstan or Exceptionlandia.