Midterm Review Notes (HUM455)

Back to the beginning

If you look at the course information page you’ll note that in the course description there are several terms in boldface. For the purposes of the midterm, two in particular stand out: myths and  the geographical imaginary. (In addition to the key concepts we’ve discussed repeatedly in class.) One of the theoretical or conceptual foundations of our study of America/ the Americas (which is it?) is this basic category of geography, a category that becomes increasingly complicated as it relates to culture, race, and national identity. Our “problematic”– the area of inquiry– is thus material and ideological, combining historical forces and the terrain itself.

Taken as a whole, that space rapidly comes to be seen as a field of relationships, of particularities and commonalities. If this seems vague, consider some of the events and ideas that have influenced the development of the hemisphere and the ways they have taken local form. The issue of trade is useful here, the notion that space is the product of human mobility and the exchange of goods, cultural practices, etc. The texts we’ve read offer some insight into this, from Shakespeare’s rendering of the native in the figure of Caliban to Bolivar’s conflicted assessment of the possibilities of independence, to Carpentier’s magnificent panorama of the Caribbean as a confluence of philosophy, commodities, power politics, and human desire.

The people produced in what came to be known as America/the Americas were the outcome of changing circumstances and residual ideas imported from Europe. Yet the newly “discovered” landscape (and seascape) often rendered old categories irrelevant. Consider the plight of Enlightenment notions– particularly the New Politics which would inform the revolutions of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. If France was the cradle of the Rights of Man, if Robespierre dictated the terrible purity of Terror and Virtue, those impulses of necessity were acclimatized to the thoroughly hybridized space of the colonies. Systems imposed from without might take shape and then buckle, losing all persuasive or descriptive power. Ultimately the new subjects who were often the object of these ideas challenged the old social order, almost as if they were the rank vegetation slowly overtaking and reclaiming the outposts and towns hacked out of the undergrowth. Recall the initial pages of Explosion in a Cathedral, in particular the panning shot of Havana, or those moments later, in Cayenne, when clothes of the French deportees succumbed to the heat and humidity of the tropics.

The New World was renewed yet again with the efforts to break with Spain, and yet when the conquistadores first arrived in the late 15th/ early 16th centuries, America was already old. Carpentier’s counter-narrative of the Caribs is instructive in this light, as it underscores a basic theme of struggle and contingency. How can such a world be represented? What methods must the author deploy in order to render with veracity the true nature of this space? The tools of the artist– like the weapons and intellectual resources of the invaders (the settlers, the colonizers)– ought to be adequate to the chosen task.

It’s not my intention to sound too cryptic, though ultimately it is up to you to decide how these texts and ideas fit together. In some of the works we read, contending principles clashed in antagonism. Think of Oge and Victor, what each of these characters represents. Or Caliban and Prospero. How might Miranda and Sofia measure up with respect to one another? In literature (“good” literature) deep ideas often become palpable through an appeal to our intellectual approximation of the senses. Certainly Carpentier’s Caribbean seems virtually three-dimensional. The high level of his vocabulary notwithstanding, he makes a fundamental gesture at eye (fingers, nose, tongue) of his reader’s mind.

This appeal to a sensual capacity of the intellect is of necessity joined to more abstract forces. If EIC puts the Caribbean under a microscope, the Communist Manifesto portrays the Americas with broad strokes as a motive force in the epochal rise of global capitalism. Some of the ways that Marx describes the rise of the bourgeoisie might be applied to America itself: the ferment, the dynamism, the impersonal logic of vast powers that exterminate and conjure whole populations.

Taken together, the texts we’ve read thus far constitute a multifaceted narrative of development, one that might have broken in any direction. One of the purposes of ideologies such as Manifest Destiny is to impart the illusion that things were bound to turn out as they did. They impose a retrospective coherence on what were in fact highly unstable and uncertain events.

Somehow facts merge with magic when our texts are juxtaposed. Is it inconsequential that both Shakespeare and Carpentier seed their texts with inexplicable marvels? And the counterweight to this occult aspect lies in the grinding problems of nation-building, the numerals scratched into the columns of account books, the impassive inertia of the earth itself, which yields to human endeavor only grudgingly.

Try to think poetically and pragmatically at the same moment when you reflect on America. Hold up the freedom dreams of maroons slipping their chains and running off to found cities. Set their audacious hopes beside the grim practicalities of colonization and decolonization.