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.

Turner, Terrence

Turner, Terrence, “Indigenous Rights, Environmental Protection and the struggle over forest resources in the Amazon: the case of the Brazilian Kayapo.”  in Conway, Jill K, et al, eds. Earth, Air, Fire, Water: Humanistic Studies of the Environment. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999.

This piece looks at the Kayapo of the Xingú Valley and the way their role in environmental protection and exploitation has ben misconstrued by romantics and “glass-case” conservationists. Turner discuses two cases: the Altamira mobilization of Feb., 1989, and the relation of some Kayapo with gold miners and loggers. In each case he examines Kayapo ontology as a way of discrediting Northern appropriations of their struggle.

In the case of the Altamira mobilization against a massive hydro project on the Xingu, Turner argues that the type of conservation being advocated correlates to Kayapo conceptions of the utility of forest resources and not to the Northern conceptions of them as “primitive ecologists.” By showing how the event was ordered around the ritual of the New Corn Ceremony (converging upon a village setting, felling a forest tree as a communal bench, reenactment of the maize tree myth) and explaining the participation of women as an embodiment of the concerns highlighted by the event (loss of Kayapo culture through environmental degradation) Turner suggests the entire event was “a dramatization of the environmental values of Kayapo culture in the service of a Kayapo version of environmental activism.” (158) When examining how this may have been misconstrued he points to the way the event’s Portuguese and English communications with the press and civil society representatives in attendance were “couched in the rhetoric of international First World environmentalism and international Fourth World ethnic nationalism.” (153).

Orlove, Benjamin

Orlove, Benjamin S. “Down to Earth: Race and Substance in the Andes.” Bulletin of Latin American Research 17, no. 2 (1998): 207-222.
I wrote far too much on the last Orlove piece I posted on, so I’ll try and keep this one succinct. This piece deals with the intersections of people’s relation to the earth and racialized identities. Specifically it looks at the way everyday objects of two categories—earthen and earth-touching—participate in the way mestizo (read urban) and Indian (read rural) identities are construed.

Regarding Earthen objects, Orlove looks at adobe bricks, dirt roads and clay pots. As case studies he addresses: one community member’s attempt not to pisar tierra by purchasing his share of bricks to contribute to a community school; the butting territorialities of government ministries and villagers as played out on roads connecting the highway and the shore of Lake Titicaca; and “earthy taste” of food prepared in clay pots.

Shoes and floors are the two earth-touching types of objects that interest Orlove. Kinds, uses, and the shininess of shoes supposedly differentiate race, while it is the kind and cleaning of floors that marks one mestizo or Indian.

Orlove, Benjamin

Orlove, Benjamin S. “Putting Race in Its Place: Order in Colonial and Postcolonial Peruvian Geography.” Social Research 60, no. 2 (Summer93 1993): 301-336.

Orlove discusses the shift in notions of ordered space that occurred between the colonial and republican periods in Peru. Dividing his study temporally between the production of colonial and republican geographies, he looks at settlements, mountains and Indians as objects of geographic study and asks how their ordering was conditioned by disciplinary, administrative and hegemonic impulses.  

To form what he calls the colonial geography produced between 1574 and 1790, Orlove looks at the relaciones geográficas, the descripciones and the itinerarios produced by colonial officials. He highlights the prominence of the Greek variables of hot/cold and wet/dry as they were used to designate parts of the viceroyalty and shows how this facilitated a correlation between geography and medicine. (305) Through this correlation we see that space was marked more by climate than topography—although it was a factor—and that climate was read as determining health (think “Buenos Aires”). 

Price, Marie and Martin Lewis

Price, Marie and Martin Lewis. "The Reinvention of Cultural Geography." Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 1467-8306, Vol. 83, No. 1 (1993):  pp. 1-17.

Price and Lewis set out to complicate the divide between so-called traditional cultural geography and its supposed avant-guarde counterpart. To do this, the aim to expose the misinterpretation of Berkley School (as empirical-based, non-theoretical, apolitical) for what it is, a straw-man argument designed to frame up-and-coming (for 1993) cultural geographers as the nouvelle vague.

Looking at the work of Duncan, Cosgrove and Jackson—some of the so-called “new cultural geographers”—Price and Lewis give a brief vignette of the evolution of the critique of the Berkeley School and show how their early critiques separated the more admirable work of Berkeley schoolers and cordoned it off under the rubric of “humanistic” rather than “cultural” geography, (4) leaving those more closely aligned with Carl Sauer to represent the old guard. As the “new” folks became less and less beholden to the “old” folks, the caricature of traditional cultural geography as object-obsessed, apolitical and based on Kroeber’s long-outdated superorganic theory increasingly lost touch with reality. To wrap up this section, Price and Lewis resort to a good quote by Lester Rowntree, which I’ve added below.

Sommer, Doris

Sommer, Doris. Foundational Fictions: the National Romances of Latin America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991

Doris Sommer expands the import of print media by suggesting that the newspaper was not only a site of collective imagining, but a space of national consolidation in which the ideological predispositions were negotiated through allegory. Moreover, Sommer underlines the function of romantic novels, published as folletines, in this process. Novels, she argued, especially due to their serialized publication in newspapers, did not merely condition the process of collective imagining, but via the national allegories that they perpetuated, novels influenced the ideological make-up and social values of the very communities they sought to reflect.

Like Anderson, Sommer deals with print media as a communal space, where national allegories transformed with time. For instance, she argues that over the course of the nineteenth century, the transformation of the archetypical male hero presented a blueprint for societal conduct with regard to Spanish imperialism (this was embodied by the soldier figure), then the project of national consolidation (portrayed by the patriarch) and right up to a newly kindled rejection of imperialist intervention, this time coming from the North (seen in the revival of the soldier-fighter-resister).

Note: If interested, there is more on Sommer in the second section of my Master's Thesis.

Unzueta, Fernando

Unzueta, Fernando. “Escenas de lectura: naciones imaginadas y el romance de la historia en hispanoamérica”. Araucaria, vol. 6, no. 13 (2005)
Note: this is a Spanish version of Unzueta’s chapter in Beyond Imagined Communities.

Unzueta is trying to fuse Sommer, Anderson and Jauss to advance a constructivist analysis of the Nation as culturally produced. He argues that the novelistic conventions of nineteenth- and twentieth-century romances “seduced readers toward the pertinence of the nation”. (5)

For most of the first half of the article, Unzueta echoes a familiar chorus, highlighting the programmatic function of the novel and the way romantic relations were symbolically infused with national meanings. Once he begins to develop his notion of the “escenas de lectura”, however, things get interesting. He begins by arguing for the novel as representing a true popular culture that comes into its own in the mid part of the nineteenth century. To substantiate this clam he goes to numbers, arguing that novels not only reached the letrados, but that as folletines they most likely were passed around, and were also read in public readings, thus permeating oral culture as well. He also argues that beyond reaching new and broader publics, novels spurred new forms of reading (here he draws from Auerbach and echoes Said). Foundational novels had to be “original” and thus focused on Spanish American nature, customs and history. (12) As such they conditioned a horizonal change that retooled the readers' expectations.

Carney, Judith Ann

Carney, Judith Ann. Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2001.

I would argue Carney is successfully doing with agricultural knowledge what Sweet tries to do with spirituality. That is, she challenges theses of creolization and Middle Passage erasure to further the work of Peter Wood (African slaves participated in the development of the Carolina rice economy as more than just a source of labour) and Daniel Littlefield (their contributions came from experience in Africa) Carney’s argument is that African knowledge of irrigated rice cultivation crossed the Middle Passage in tact and was utilized to the benefit of Carolina rice plantations, constituting a significant asset to the antebellum economy, while also introducing methods of landscape transformation and gendered knowledge that came from Africa.

In both cases—Carney and Sweet—the argument necessarily deals with origins. Here Carney convincingly debunks the myth that irrigated rice cultivation was introduced in Upper Guinea by the Portuguese, and demonstrates how an indigenous species of rice—Oryza glaberrima— was domesticated independently of the more widely studied Asian species, O. sativa. She does this in two ways: first she offers a rereading of Portuguese chronicles; then she uses the concept of landscape gradient to illustrate a major fissure in the Portuguese-origin argument.