Contact Zones

In The Blood of Guatemala, Greg Grandin poses a hypothetical: “Would the [Guatemalan] revolution have endured if the United States had not interfered or would internal contradictions have forced its demise?” Rather than pursuing the counterfactual, Grandin goes on to admit the answer cannot be known. But he nonetheless defends the question’s utility for it “shifts the focus to include the role Guatemalans played in the making of their own history.” Thus, while Grandin is interested in understanding how “larger structures of power articulate with local interests and tensions,” he ultimately contends that the best way to do that is by closely examining the local, for “if capitalism and imperialism think globally, they need to act locally if they are to succeed.”[1]

Grandin’s concept of the local, however, is not simply global capitalist imperialism’s Other, nor is it a unified national polity. Instead it lies at the interstices of three assumptions: 1) that Nation is produced through social relations and thus a cultural artifact, not a superstructure; 2) that as a cultural artifact, nation is produced by multiple and competing processes, and thus can be localized; 3) the local is not only a site where nation is negotiated, but it is where hegemonic processes encounter global structures.

In this essay I examine three general and interwoven literatures as well as how they reflect these three ideas underlying the local. Beginning with a discussion of nationalism and Nation, I outline how ideas of imagining have extended the local beyond a mere spatial category. As part of the New Cultural History, the local has become an enunciation; more than just a town, or “the street,” literature and performance have been treated as sites of contestation and resistance. Next I look at the interventions of Subaltern Studies and the ways that “decentering” has produced a shift to the local. Finally, I explore how concepts of the “contact zone” and the encounter have infused the local with a global hue.