The Blood of Guatemala ... As a Starting Point

Location: 

Grandin, Greg. The Blood of Guatemala: a History of Race and Nation. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000.

I want to focus on one page in particular from Greg Grandin’s The Blood of Guatemala. In his discussion of how education curricula and scheduling served to widen the class divide between rural K’iche subsistence farmers and urban principales, Grandin argues that the school year was planned around the needs of the coffee-based export economy. He shows how this fed the class divide by structuring time around the demands of the agro-production cycle. (172)

This scenario, however, makes me think about an ongoing quandary that I’ve yet to put to rest. As part of the effort to complicate nature-culture binaries, environmental historians have highlighted the agency of non-human actors, and broken down such monoliths as wilderness and nature to show how they are socially constituted. Likewise, non-human actors have been shown to complicate matters of scale, forcing us to problematize political boundaries like the city, state or nation by asking how dynamic environments influence or condition socio-political life. Yet the closest we have come to an equivalent watershed regarding temporal scale involves embedding human events within longue durée treatments of geological and climatological transformations. In these cases, however, there still exists a stark separation between what we may call “natural” (i.e. geological and climatological) and “cultural” time; temporally speaking, though juxtaposed, history is still anthropocentrically isolated from the natural history that surrounds it.

This may be because the environmental longue durée (remember, it didn’t mean geology and climate for Braudel, 1960) requires such a wide-angle view that the historical event is smoothed over; seen from a distance its “lumpiness” (Sewell 1996, 843) disintegrates.

However, disturbance theories and patchwork models have shown that non-human time doesn’t need to be equated with a leap to the geological longue durée (Zimmerer 1994). So I wonder if, rather than reverting to geological time when looking for a non-human temporality, we can instead talk about “plant time,” the meristematic temporality that bestows some order on plant events—photosynthetic moments, budding germination, reproduction.

Grandin’s example shows yet another mechanism by which class issues slowly supplanted racial categories as the guidelines for social stratification. Yet it also shows the importance of a point at which the borders between human and plant time were blurred. Education was made to correspond to the shift in pigment of a coffee bud rather than the maturation of a corn stalk. While I don’t want to take Grandin’s point for granted, what this example does for me is illustrate the significance of plant time in societal transformations. 

Grandin exposes the social schisms ushered in under Liberal reforms with striking acuity. Yet I think there is something to be said about how time was conditioned by the shift from perma- to monoculture, from the huerto to the plantation.

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