Metaphors that disturb and inspire Edward Baugh Distinguished Lecture [UWI Jamaica]
the challenge of reading across cultures
The challenges of interpretation, the slipperiness and precision of language, and the importance of place have long inspired Edward Baugh’s work and continue to energize postcolonial engagements with the emergent difficulties and opportunities posed by globalization. This paper takes its inspiration from Baugh’s poem, “Turning Point,” where the narrator reconsiders his first impression of a road that appears to lead to a dead end to note of its puzzling name on the map: “But Mundo Nuevo nags. Did the metaphor disturb a sleeping nerve?” After a brief discussion of the poem, this paper will consider how certain metaphors for place and cross-cultural engagement are being stretched and reinvented by critics and writers in efforts to understand the challenges posed to conventional wisdom by global developments. Through this discussion, and with the aid of a few photographs, I will elaborate ways in which literary studies are participating in the analysis of global engagements and the search for alternative structures for governing them. My discussion will draw on my experience with interdisciplinary research teams investigating “globalization and autonomy” and “building global democracy” (www.buildingglobaldemocracy.org
The lecture was delivered on November 29, 2009 and is to be included in a series of publised lectures. Given the upcoming visit by President Barack Obama, to Latin America and Brazil, I have decided to publish this excerpt reflecting on his encounter with Venezualan President Hugo Chávez who offered the gift of a Spanish-language book, during the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad, on April 18, 2009.
The German globalization theorist, Ulrich Beck, suggests that “the context of globality is now everybody’s starting point” (107). As globalization reveals cracks in national imaginaries, regional imaginaries gain strength. Jamaica’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade, Dr. Kenneth Baugh, has argued that Spanish be made a second language in Jamaica, given the shifting dynamics of the region (See Press Report). His proposal reinforces the view that the old spatial imaginary of the Commonwealth British West Indies is shape-shifting into a regional imaginary that places Jamaica in closer proximity to the Spanish-speaking Americas. The logic of globalization loosens some links while tightening others. Some of that logic may be observed in the first photograph I will discuss today.
Here is Venezualan President Hugo Chávez offering United States President Barack Obama the gift of a Spanish-language book, during the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad, on April 18, 2009. The book, Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America, first published in 1971, documents the history of the Americas from a postcolonial perspective. Watching this moment, the world saw a visual image of a possible turning point. The history of colonization and imperialism still matter, Chávez says. In response to that history, however, he refuses the supplicant or victim’s position. Whereas once the United States assumed the power of definition, casting Latin America as its colonial backyard and the recipient of its humanitarian and civilizing aid, now it is the Venezuelan President who is the instructor and the giver of gifts: here a book that redefines the US/Latin American relation as historically one of oppression and inequity but potentially one of equality. This is a self-aggrandizing gesture on the part of Chávez, but as postcolonial readers, or readers trained in close, contextualized reading by Eddie Baugh or his colleagues, we can discover much more.
Galeano’s book and Chávez’s gesture each here assume the power of definition, the power to narrate, and the power to redefine the categories of First and Third World, North and South. The gift casts Obama, President of the United States, in the role of the one who needs to learn, and to learn not just an unfamiliar take on history, but also a story written first in Spanish. Spanish too carries a history of colonial domination and resistance. There is no pure language of liberation. But Spanish complicates the picture and it suggests that the era of unquestioned U.S. hegemony and of the dominance of global English may be coming to a close.
Reading Chávez’s gesture through de Sousa Santos’s challenge to seek “cognitive justice,” we can see that more is at stake here than political grandstanding. The visual image of transfer from South to North, Latin America to the United States, set in Trinidad, challenges the circuits of exchange that have characterized South-North relations throughout the imperial centuries. Whereas imperialism looted resources and knowledge from conquered peoples, misrepresenting those relations of taking as benevolence, this image reverses that version of transfer, while remaining haunted by its ghosts. Here, through the medium of the book, the global south symbolically translocates a revised view of history seen from the perspective of the colonized. Galeano’s book raises questions of location and direction: it asks for whom Obama and Chávez speak. The “open veins of Latin America” provide a graphic image of an injured continent bleeding outwards into the globe, an embodied landscape of suffering that speaks its injury and its resistance in a single breath, insisting that another knowledge is not only possible but will not be denied.
The complete lecture (pdf) may be downloaded.