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Saturday, February 2, 2013

Fields have narratives

The central narrative of my field is called "the problem of Spain," "the struggle for modernity" (Labanyi) or "the poetics Spanish cultural exceptionalism" (Mayhew).

It constructs Spanish culture negatively, in terms of its backwardness, its repression of intellectual currents and ethnic groups. Then it finds value in exceptions to the exception, intellectual heroes like Cervantes or Saint John of the Cross. A single figure, like Unamuno, can be construed as a manifestation of backwardness, or as an exception to the exception, providing a way out. You can theorize exceptionality from the left or the right, or turn figures inside out and make them represent other things. Take Dámaso Alonso's reading of Lorca as the typically Spanish writer, and then contrast that to Subirats listing the duende along with Brazlian antropofagia.

It is interesting to me that I didn't know what the narrative of my own field was when I began. Sure, all the evidence was there, but I never put it all together. I was more of a splitter in those days, but am now evolving into a lumper. Many people I know participate in this narrative. Elena Delgado (recalcitrant modernities); Eduardo Subirats (Theses against Hispanism).

Subfields of the field have narratives dependent on the master narrative. They might emphasize the failure of romanticism (Silver), the failure of the enlightenment, or any other similar narrative of lack. If you study Goytisolo you will read Américo Castro. If you study Larra or The Generation of 1898, or anything else, you will not be far away from the poetics of cultural exceptionalism. My own book Apocryphal Lorca was about this too, though it was also about American exceptionalism. If you study Francoism you will also be head-to-head with exceptionalism, since the govt. promoted tourism with the phrase "Spain is different."

A very conservative Catholic scholar could read Spanish literature and simply approve of the most conservative dimensions of the counter-reformation. That would still be part of the narrative. I suspect that's what Parker did with Calderón. I'll have to look that up. Menéndez Pelayo developed an orthodox intellectual history of Spain by studying heterodox movements, of which he disapproved. Still, by documenting heterodoxy he lay the foundations for a history that values what is heterodox and exceptional.


I don't know much about Latin American Literature, but here are some narratives:

*nation building
*legacy of colonialism (legacy of Spanish exceptionalism, the black legend?)
*the role of intellectual elites looking toward Europe
*modernity as a problem; distinctiveness of Latin American avant-gardes
*creation of a distinctive identity, Latin American cultural exceptionalism based on landscapes and cultural tradition

If I were in this field, I would be able to connect all these narratives and see them in a more unified way. Knowing Spain helps a good deal because some of these narratives are extensions or parallels of their peninsular counterparts. Spain as a non-European country =! Latin America's aspirations to a European style modernity.


What is the main narrative of your field? If you know what it is, that might be helpful in getting to see where your work fits in. That's the difference between writing an analysis of a particular short-story for a literature class and being a scholar in the field. You can make a name for yourself if you fill in a major gap in an already existing narrative in a convincing way.

1 comment:

Leslie B. said...

One way to add up the Latin American one is to notice that all the topics you listed are interlinked by projects of white supremacy!!! This is shocking to say I know and Latin Americans will and do say I am engaging in projective identification or something when I say this but verily I think it is true. Mestizaje as conciliation and unification is a total crock and Cornejo-style "heterogeneity" is a weak critique.

The way to really study it is to start looking at documents of the Inquisition which has barely been done and not entirely to this end. If I were to abdicate and move to Mexico, for instance, I could start digging right on this topic full time. US based Spanish professors from elite classes, intent on teaching the anglosajones about mestizaje, would not appreciate it at all but Mexicans would be interested.