Going Global: Thoughts on Literature and Disciplinarity

At this point it’s no secret that I’m leaving my position as an Assistant Professor of Spanish in the Department of Languages at the University of North Dakota to take a position as an Assistant Professor of Global Literature in the Department of English at Western Carolina University. That is, I’m not just switching locales and institutions, but disciplines, a switch that has been on my mind quit a bit in the run up to this year’s meeting of the Latin American Studies Association (LASA) and through my current reading of Jodi Melamed’s Represent and Destroy: Rationalizing Violence in the New Racial Capitalism.

On the surface, I believe that Melamed’s argument about the role that literature and literary studies have played in reproducing the dominant relations of production over the past 70 or so years largely holds true. In essence, Melamed maintains that literature (specifically the racial novel) became a staging ground for the experience of difference after WWII, and that it helped shaped various iterations of white liberal subjects’ belief that race, not the inequalities that race validated and concretized, was the primary obstacle to national unity, etc. Whether reconfigured as multiculturalism in the 90s or neoliberal multiculturalism in the 00s, the effects are the same: divorced from material realities, these projects co-opt and reconfigure social movements, not so much producing change but directing it towards goals compatible with global capitalism.

Melamed’s is a fascinating, compelling argument as I turn toward a position in the contested field of Global Literature. Is Global Literature (as Melamed and many others suggest) a restaging of US post-WWII literary practices on a Global Scale? Are the terms of the “Global” always, in Walter Mignolo’s formulation, about the imposition of local histories as universal, universalizing global truths, with literary studies constituting an important way of posing and answering questions about how readers (in Melamed predominantly white, middle-class readers) relate to difference? Must the aesthetic always eclipse the material in  such literary analyses?

Melamed implicates a variety of disciplines and their uses of literature as staging grounds of difference, and I have been reflecting on her views as I prepare to attend LASA. At this juncture I don’t think I necessarily disagree with  her so much as I believe that, at least within certain interdisciplinary subfields of Latin American Studies like Indigenous Studies, in a Latin American context certain strains of literary study have long been keenly aware of the need to be grounded in the material realities of the communities that produce literary texts. In fact, as the field of Indigenous Studies expands to include contemporary indigenous literary production, several colleagues of mine and I have begun to actively debate whether or not one can engage these literatures without addressing issues such as decolonization, land tenure, indigenous languages, and institutionalized violence, and our panel Friday address how (or even if) we as others can engage these literatures. As Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang forcefully state, treating decolonization as a metaphor strips it of its vitality and preempts discussions of colonial seizures of land that necessitate the work of de-colonization in the first place. That is, discourses of decolonization become unmoored from decolonization’s material goals.

To some extent and despite its materialist bent, I’d argue that the fissures noted by Melamed in US and Global Literatures are already born out in Latin American literature as a whole as most, if not almost all, Latin American literary anthologies and literary histories allocate indigenous texts to the front of literary volumes, presenting them as pre-Columbian preludes to Conquest, Colonization, and the work of Western History. That is, despite a strong materialist bent, even a focus on material conditions may, in some cases, feed other kinds of national and nationalist narratives.

With these thoughts and my own presentation in mind, I’m looking forward to continuing these conversations and debates with friends and colleagues in Chicago as I look to begin teaching Global Literature in the fall. How can Global Literature inform Latin American literary study and vice versa? More importantly, what are the challenges that Indigenous Studies present to both?

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