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Wednesday, June 5, 2013


We've been taught that strong writing uses verbs in the active voice, and the avoidance of the verb to be. Actually, that is one part of the conventional wisdom that might improve some academic writing. I noticed a few paragraphs of mine in which there are a lot of verbs doing things, and not quite as many copulatives or passives. The next step would be to eliminate repetitions of verbs.

One form that exceptionalism takes is an interest in unique forms of life defined in essentialist ways. Cultural anthropology itself and the theory of national characters arise out of the idea that a nation of people has a more or less monolithic identity. Nevertheless, in practical terms most forms of exceptionalism have needed to take into account the non-homogeneity of modern nations, or the ways in which identity gets formed in situations of cultural contact and interchange. Américo Castro, for example, developed a theory that the “morada vital” or “dwelling place of life” of the Spanish people was forged in the medieval period through the convivencia among Jews, Moors, and Christians. In the 1940s, when Castro was developing his theories, Fernando Ortiz proposed the idea of of transculturación (transculturation) to account for the distinctiveness of Cuban identity.

Metaphors of mixing and crossing have a double advantage: they draw on the romantic allure of originality, while also trying to resolve potential contradictions through the rhetorical synthesis of opposing elements. Uniqueness can result from odd, syncretic combinations as easily as from a monolithic essence. Prefixes like inter, trans, meta, post, and syn, have been popular among literary intellectuals for many decades now. Trans and inter deploy the trope of crossing, while post and meta promise a kind of transcendence or going beyond. (Trans, of course, is the Latin equivalent of the Greek meta.) Syn expresses the aspiration for combinations, hybrids, and fusions. From the perspective of the poetics of cultural analysis, these tropes form a single group, despite the variety ideological purposes they might serve.

Not infrequently, a theorist will propose a neologism designed to improve upon older conceptualizations of hybrid identities, in an attempt to take the logic of hybridity one step further. Alberto Moreiras, tired of the prevalent discourse around hybridity and transculturation, puts forward the concept of “dirty atopics,” a densely articulated theoretical concept derived from a particular interpretation of the Spanish American neo-baroque and the trope of chiasmus. In La increíble hazaña de ser mexicano, Heriberto Yépez develops a project of “superación nacional” (national overcoming / improvement) that will produce a “post-Mexican” subject. He begins his book with the argument that pre-Columbian Mexican culture was engaged in an effort to create “un hombre superior” (a superior man). Yépez draws quite explicitly from José Vasconcelos’s notion of a “raza cósmica,” an idealization of Latin American mestizaje or racial mixing dating from the 1920s. Vasconcelos, for Yépez, was “el primer post-mexicano” (194; the first post-Mexican). These new coinages, predictably, will give way to future efforts to surpass the prevaling rhetorical climate. Because exceptionalism typically entails appeals to improvement and surpassing, leaving old identities and old combinations of identities behind, its new forms can be starkly opposed to older understandings of culture without fundamentally altering the base of its appeal.


Professor Zero said...

It's going to be excellent!

Vance Maverick said...

Active / no-copula is a bit of a red herring. (Perhaps that's the point you're making?) Many of those are only pseudo-active. The first, for example, is part of an idiom meaning "to be". "Deploy" is military, but you're using it figuratively. I hasten to add that this is not a problem.

Jonathan said...

All I'm saying is that it is an easy short-cut to vigorous writing. You don't need to avoid the copula at all expense, but you should have this traditional piece of writing advice as part of the tool-kit, at the very least. It's such an easy trick and it can be effective.