LASA Conference May 2015

A word from LASA’s president Debra Castillo.

Yet Again, the Threshold

 

I’ve been at Cornell University a very long

time, long enough that when Allan Bloom,

who once taught at my institution, returned

to campus to give a talk about his

controversial and much-discussed 1987

book, The Closing of American Mind, I

was already around to be in the massive

audience for his lecture. Lest you are

mislead by the book’s title, let me hasten to

remind you that the “closing” Bloom was

talking about, the way he saw higher

education as failing its students, was that it

was becoming too open to new ideas and

approaches, too unstructured, too leftist,

too distant from the best that has been

thought and said—the “Great Books” of

the West. Perhaps the most controversial

thing he said that afternoon, among many

hotly contested points, was his response to

a question about his work’s universalizing

claims, in the face of its curious lack of

attention to thousands of years of Chinese

art and literature. As I remember it,

Bloom’s response was straightforward:

when the Chinese produce something

worthy of the world’s attention, then he

would gladly pay attention to it.

Meanwhile, he stood by his defense of the

Western canon.

Around the same time, a senior colleague

of mine in the Spanish program made a

parallel comment when I asked him (on

behalf of a group of students who came to

me and asked me to speak to him) why

there were no women writers in his survey

course on Latin American literature. He

responded gently (he was a gentleman) that

he had no prejudices at all, and would be

happy to include a woman in his syllabus

when there was one able to write at the

same level as the other great authors

included in his course.

Signs of the times, you might say. Ancient

history.

I love the hoary Great Books—it’s hard to

imagine becoming a scholar without

finding these magnificent works irresistible

and feeling goose bumps when returning to

them again and again: “En un lugar de la

Mancha, de cuyo nombre no quiero

acordarme . . .”; “Muchos años después,

frente al pelotón de fusilamiento, el coronel

Aureliano Buendía había de recordar

aquella tarde remota en que su padre lo

llevó a conocer el hielo”; “Vine a Comala

porque me dijeron que acá vivía mi padre,

un tal Pedro Páramo.” Still, you can see

how it came about that I have dedicated

much of my professional career to writing

and thinking about exclusions in Latin

American literary and cultural history, and

to questions of exclusions based specifically

on gender and sexuality, mostly wishing I

could write myself out of that job,

imagining a day when such a history might,

indeed, become ancient and irrelevant, and

finding to my dismay that the exclusionary

practices remain all too persistent, and

deeply rooted.

In her much-cited l972 poem, “Meditación

en el umbral,” Mexican Rosario

Castellanos captures vividly and

unforgettably the sense of potentiality and

frustration that might be said to define the

early days of second-generation women’s

rights and cultural work, her struggle with

the often-unwritten codes of institutional

and social exclusion that she fought

against, in poem after poem, essay after

essay, book after book. There will be an

end to tokenism and exclusionary social

practices, she intuits, and she can imagine

crossing the threshold but can’t yet see

what is on the other side:

Debe haber otro modo que no se

llame Safo ni Mesalina ni María Egipcíaca

ni Magdalena ni Clemencia Isaura.

Otro modo de ser humano y libre.

Otro modo de ser. (316)

For Castellanos, and for many other

activists of her generation (and mine), that

struggle was punctuated by still-potent

names like Tlatelolco, the Sorbonne, and

Kent State, in a way that echoes, for me,

how the Occupy/Indignados movement has

swept through nations and imaginations

across the globe more recently.

Castellanos’s struggle, which is still our

struggle today, was to put human rights on

national and international agendas: to raise

consciousness about issues relative to wage

work, domestic labor, motherhood, the

body, reproduction, race, identity,

sexualities, violence. Hers was the effort to

promote recognition of women’s creativity

and women’s claim to the life of the mind.

The literary/academic side of this struggle

against continued exclusionary practices

was on the first level a labor of rescue (to

identify authors and reissue works by

women, LGBT individuals, indigenous

people, and Afro-Latin Americans) and

evaluation (to integrate these “marked”

categories into the largely heterosexual,

male, dominant cultural understandings of

national and international literary projects).

Concomitantly in Latin America in the late

twentieth and early twenty-first centuries

there was an explosive growth of presses,

galleries, exhibitions, and performances; of

grassroots activism, position papers, and

theoretical writings; of creative work and

multiplatform media projects. These

exchanges were further instantiated in the

creation of gender studies programs in

many countries throughout the hemisphere

and in the sharing of information and

resources through NGOs and increasingly

complex websites, action networks, and

social media outlets.

Then came the backlash. The case of the

testimonio is a particularly evident one:

identified with underclass political activism

and women testimonialists, this was one of

hottest genres for analysis in the l980s and

early l990s, but it seems obsolete now, to

judge by our course syllabi and scholarly

production. In a few years, people like

Rigoberta Menchú and Domitila Barrios

became celebrities, their works made

ubiquitous in academic courses across

many fields, and in quick succession they

were canonized, absorbed into the

mainstream, decried, had the potency of

their message diluted, and are now almost

ignored.

What, to use Castellanos’s term, is the

current threshold for scholars and creators

who are concerned about the history and

implications of exclusionary practices? In

an environment where it seems that two

steps back are taken for every difficult step

forward, activists like Rosario Castellanos,

for good or ill, continue to set the agenda

for contemporary thinkers. I confess, I find

cause for renewed optimism in some of the

exciting, transnationally engaged writers

like Cristina Civale, Cristina Rivera Garza,

or Belén Gache (all of whom comfortably

inhabit cyberspace as well as more

traditional paper forms), and the many

authors with bases in the United States,

Europe, or Asia as well as Latin America:

Lina Meruane (Chile and New York),

Mario Bellatin (Mexico, Peru, and an

imaginary Japan), Giannina Braschi (Puerto

Rico and the United States), Anna Kazumi

Stahl (U.S.-born of Japanese-German

descent, she lives in Argentina and writes in

Spanish). Less overtly militant than their

activist mothers, their gender consciousness

often seems more integral. They use

parody and pastiche to show, between the

lines, the association among power,

knowledge, and gender.

There is another book that is getting a lot

of attention in the U.S. press lately, William

Deresiewicz’s suggestively red, white, and

blue enrobed Excellent Sheep, with its

nostalgic championship of traditional

humanities and its worry about the future

of elite education. The best and brightest

thinkers, more or less the same folks

familiar to us from Bloom, are, in

Deresiewicz’s world as well, all that stands

between us and what one reviewer calls “a

corps of academic zombies.” There have

been enough critiques of Deresiewicz’s own

elitism that it is unnecessary to add to the

flood of print. I can only sigh despondently

when curricular discussion once again turns

on, and returns to, the usual white male

subjects. The lesson from literature,

Deresiewicz writes, is that “Mailer wanted

to be Hemingway, Hemingway wanted to

be Joyce, and Joyce was painfully aware

he’d never be another Shakespeare.” And

no one, apparently, aspires to be another

Rigoberta Menchú.

References

Bloom, Allan

1987 The Closing of the American Mind.

New York: Simon and Schuster.

Castellanos, Rosario

1972 Poesía no eres tú: Obra poética;

l948–1971. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura

Económica.

Deresiewicz, William

2014 Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the

American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful

Life. New York: Free Press.

Schwab, Katharine

2014 “‘Excellent Sheep’: Creating a Corps

of Academic Zombies.” Seattle Times,

September 21, 2014. http://seattletimes.com/

html/books/2024560317_

excellentsheepderesiewiczxml.html.

From the President of Latin American Studies Association

by Debra Castillo | Cornell University | dac9@cornell.edu

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