American Council of Learned Societies
Occasional Paper No. 35

Copyright © 1996, Mario J. Valdés

Collaborative Historiography:
A Comparative Literary History of Latin America

Linda Hutcheon
Djelal Kadir
Mario J. Valdés

The very idea of a comparative study of the literary culture of an entire continent--in this case, Latin America--might well raise eyebrows today. This is understandable in the wake both of disciplinary battles over the validity of macro-narratives and of suspicions of all-embracing comprehensiveness in the humanities and social sciences. The present endeavor might well be considered an undertaking of multiple lifetimes, and not a specific, situated research project with very real limits of time and space. This collaborative project has, in fact, been developed in full awareness of these challenges and with the guiding notion that teamwork can provide an aggregate of many lifetimes. This is a five-year project (1995-2000), whose historiographic premises and methodologies were three years in the planning, and it involves over one hundred collaborators drawn from three continents and their diverse cultures. Aware of the obvious risks of reducing diversity to arbitrary unity, or the opposite danger of putting together a large-scale compendium of information that lacks the coherence of a history, we offer this Occasional Paper in the hope that this comparative collaborative model may prove to be a research instrument of value to scholars in other areas as well as our own (Note 1).

As outlined in Rethinking Literary History--Comparatively (ACLS Occasional Paper No. 27), the ideas of cultural historians and historiographic theorists such as Hayden White, Stephen Greenblatt, David Perkins, Paul Ricoeur and Fernand Braudel (and the other historians of the Annales school) have been central to the project from the start: the large research team has moved (slowly) toward a consensus, albeit a continuously evolving consensus, on a response to the problematic issues of collaborative historiography. There have been months of intensive discussion leading up to the initiation of the three-volume project, Latin American Literatures: A Comparative History of Cultural Formations. From the outset, the entire team had to re-think where it stood with regard to those large intellectual categories of "literature" and "history." Literature is one of a number of expressive modes that make up a people's response to life, expressive modes that shape the ways of a people's life, in turn. Thus, long-standing notions of what is and what is not literature require serious and constant re-examination. And, if the past is a major part of our lives and therefore instructive both to us and to others who may want to know how we live, then history has to be approached dialectically, as the past interpreted by and in the present. The combination of these considerations obliged the investigators of this project to forsake the safe haven of literary history as the national record of a canonic corpus, and to venture into the relatively uncharted seas of comparative interdisciplinarity.

This undertaking, then, joins an increasing number of contemporary challenges to the institution of literary history as it had been practised in the past (Note 2). By putting literary history into direct contact with the social sciencesgeography, demography, political economy, linguistics, anthropology, and sociologythis project aims to do more than seek the enrichment of multiple perspectives. Each of these highly developed disciplines cannot simply be ransacked for ideas; each has its own premises and methods. No single team member would obviously be capable of mastering all these disciplines, but as a whole, the team has accepted the challenge of collaboration and the responsibility of entering into dialogue with these other fields in order to enlarge, synergetically, the frame of intellectual possibilities. Resisting the lure of what Braudel (and Michelet before him) called "total history," the project seeks to open up the disciplinary base of literary studies to the different interests of the social sciences and the other humanities. The aim is multiplicity, not totalityperspectival insight, not empyrean oversight.

As a comparative history of literary culture, this project will examine the "empirical" or material framework of "territories," peoples, languages, and their institutions, as well as their urban centers as places of the production and reception of various literary cultures. Societies produce space as "territory," as a manifestation of culture. In seeking to map such territory, the team is aware of the less than innocent nature of cartography and, indeed, of geography. Mapping has always been a way to make something exist for imperial eyes. And, geography has been called "the imposition of knowledge on experience in a specified landscape" (Note 3). Yet mapping cultural centers (Note 4) can tell us much about the important questions of access to literature and about the relation of cultural to economic power. Cities exist as expressions of cultural aspirations and values, but in complex ways which this project will explore. In examining the past of a literary culture from these multiple perspectives, this team of literary historians could well be faced with considerations of data and paradigms that have received scant attention in literary history before, whether in its national or comparative form.

Some might fear that, as a result of this broader focus on cultural formations and dynamic cultural processes, the more familiar literary historical narrative of authors and literary works might become a (too) general history of all who write or are written about, or all who read and are read aboutwithout giving due attention to those significant works of literature that are felt to make up a cultural identity. But, as the tentative table of contents reproduced here in the Appendix will show, such is not the logical result of a historiographic interest in the long-term mapping of the past and present of literary culture. The framework of empirical data and their conceptual mapping that this project employs will contextualize those important works, but should also enable the distinguishing of important lines of development and the perceiving of highlights and surprising repetitions which are evidence of a living, shared heritage that might well be taken for granted most of the time. What these methodological procedures aim to do, then, is to reveal what is held in common as well as what is not, and thus to offer the reader various ways into the record of the lived time and space of a literary culture. There can be no literary history in the momentary instants of lived experience; in that sense, for the literary historian, there is only what Braudel called the "longue durée."

In historical terms, this project on Latin America deals with an extended period of time (more than five centuries), a specific geographical area, as well as the diverse peoples who share the land, their institutions and communities. These are the dimensions of time and space that determine the history of this literary culture, but from these have been drawn multiple comparisons among ideas, images, textual forms and, of course, the representations of humanity that Latin Americans have produced. These comparisons operate across time and space, illuminating continuities, trends, repetitions, and differences, while functioning like a retrospective probe into the processes of individual and collective self-creation. This is how the dialectic of literary imagination as human habitat and as narrative constellation emerges, for a comparative literary history can bring together different responses in language to similar conditions of existence and shared human aspirations.

In the specific case of Latin America, the project will explore the literary culture of the diverse peoples who share this particular territorial space by asking questions derived from an interdisciplinary perspective. These are questions about the contextual specificities of that common environment that can then be brought to bear on the historical record of a literary culture, which (as with all cultures) is always in process. This approach, however, obviously depends on the extraordinary good will and collaboration of colleagues from many disciplines, and the generous pooling of accumulated knowledge gathered by these individual scholars who, though expert in a particular area, have agreed to think comparatively, across the boundaries of their expertise and specialty, to seek common ground. So, while the three volumes may at times appear to cover some of the same material as other literary histories in the past, they will do so from very different perspectives and will, therefore, ask very different questions (see Appendix). And, while some of the collaborators on this team may well focus on the same institutions, works, or authors, obviously the concerns and issues brought to bear on these materials are going to be quite different. In a problematics-based approach like this, as opposed to a chronological or thematic one, the results invariably reflect the questions asked and the problems foregrounded. Thus, an internal dynamic of the comparative and the dialogic among the various parts of this history will be a significant dimension of such a collaborative effort.

Part of what differentiates this undertaking from previous efforts, then, is the fact that this historiographic model entails a constant playing of the distant past against the recent past; it postulates past significance as a present meaningas the possibility of meaning in our own present. Obviously, if the literary past is cut off from the present, there can be no historical perspective; likewise, what has come between the past text and its present readers cannot be ignored. In literary culture, there can be constant themes, means of emplotment, repetition of ideas and images that, in the aggregate, make the segregation of literature into desultory fragments (and its separation from "life") not only a falsification of the past but an impoverishment of the present.

A not uncommon reductive illusion of literary history is the long-standing belief that the "classics" of literature are the works of genius that somehow exist beyond time and rise above lived life to the point of separating authors from their community. Such an illusion overlooks the fact that a work of literature really consists of language that, despite being deployed in conventional forms, is, in the end, derived from daily life usage; likewise, literary culture is perpetuated in turn by the re-absorption of its discourse into the language of everyday life. Disregard of this mutual interchange has led to a separation of literature and popular culture that the work of Dante, Cervantes, Milton, Joyce, Borges, or Neruda would belie. It is in part this inseparability of literature from the realities of its (and our) culture that drives this project's desire to contextualize the works of the past as part of lifethen and now. To this end, the literatures (in the plural) examined in these volumes include literatures both elite and popular, both oral/performative and written, both canonical and historically ignored. The term "literatures," in other words, means all verbal discourse, as well as its more obvious connotation of verbal works in many different languages.

As the title, Latin American Literatures: A Comparative History of Cultural Formations, suggests, then, this is, in a number of ways, a history of pluralities joined together under the perennially contested designation of "Latin America." This is not going to be a straightforward record of books and authors from a determined place, however. If anything, it will offer provisional "predictive hypotheses" to challenge the "epistemological privilege of evidence" (Note 5). These will often be presented in the interrogative form. Thus, among the new questions the project seeks to address are: "Why a plurality of literatures? What are the parameters of Latin America as spatial and as human geography? What is meant by a cultural formation and, most pertinent to the case, why should the pursuit of literary history entertain such notions as cultural formation? The idea is to construct a history without closure, one that can be entered through many points and can unfold through many coherent, informed, and focused narrative lines. This will be a history of hundreds of communities linked by language, history, or economic patterns. The material conditions of these communities will serve as the mapped background against which to examine the institutions and the literary culture they share. The value of cultural artifacts such as literature lies, in part, in the ways these artifacts are held in commonin other words, their exchange value, the measure of their use. A poem can become a song which can eventually become an identity marker for a communitywithout there being anything bought or sold. So the material value of literature as commodity, as market product, is relative and even, in absolute terms, perhaps rather insignificant (Note 6).

What, then, is meant by "a comparative history of cultural formations"? It involves first and foremost an epistemological break with the Latin American literary histories of the past. It recognizes, for example, a number of central problematics that have previously been downplayed or ignored. For instance, the Spanish and Portuguese sectors of the continent have experienced parallel (yet, differing) cultural development in terms of their European ties: for both, the links were more with Paris than with either Lisbon or Madrid. Or, to take another example, this time from the economic side, Latin America's participation in the world marketplace has been one of commodity boom and bust periods (of coffee, sugar cane, rubber, copper, bananas, precious metals and, today, cocaine) that have their parallel in the realm of cultural commodities: in the Latin American novel of the suggestively-named "boom" period of the 1960s and 1970s, and the "magical realisms" of the continent's imaginative products (whether fiction or film), that have been exoticized and commodified by the academic and publishing centers of the Anglo-American and European metropolitan markets. Beyond the acknowledgement of the complex reality of a continent whose wealth, for the most part, is not shared amongst the population, there is also a largely unrecorded history of cultural formations that have generated transnational zones of cultural interaction, and these will provide the major focus of the project's investigation. The transnational, however, is not here a simple synonym for the regionalwith its frequent associations of ethnic purity and cultural authenticity (Note 7). It is, instead, in Latin America, the human geographical and demographical realm of the multi-ethnic and the multi-racial.

To say that "Latin America" is the creation of the peoples who inhabit it would be a problematic assertion, since the continent's culture and cartography have both been created in reaction to outside pressures and engendered in proactive as well as reactive ways. An arbitrary (and not a natural) entity, so named by the French for imperial purposes, "Latin America" is a discursive construct: it is contingent, heterogenous, dynamic. Its different areas have different colonial histories, different creolization, different relations to modernityand postmodernity (Note 8). Figuratively and literally, the ground beneath the cultural construct called Latin America is, by definition, unstable; the processes of historical formation in the past have often been disrupted by small and large cataclysmic upheavals such as the Mexican Revolution of 1910, the wars of independence that swept Spanish America a century before, or the chaotic changes in power in the Caribbean in the eighteenth centuryto say nothing, of course, of the conquest itself. Its history has been punctuated with externally induced and internally self-inflicted turmoil that continues to alter the shape of the hemisphere's culture as much as the natural disasters of geological shifts alter its topography.

The cultural processes of self-expression of peoplesspeaking Amerindian languages, Spanish or Portuguesemust be read in this context today: such is the premise of this project. The specific texts designated at various times as "literature" (Note 9) are manifestations of this continuous process by which people recognize themselves, their shared myths, visions, ideals, as well as respond to the abuse of power in the relentless drive for wealth or political dominance. Therefore, Latin American literature will not be approached only through the individuated discourse of even its most well-known writers; instead, the focus will be on the situating of (plural) literatures in broader historical and cultural contexts. The obvious challenge of the project is to write this history of cultural formations as a collaborative project, being faithful to the situational diversity of the contexts of both the literature and the scholars writing about it, while still maintaining a necessary consistency of focus.

Latin American Literatures: A History of Cultural Formations will be divided into three structurally interdependent volumes entitled Configurations of Literary Culture in Latin America, Institutional Modes and Cultural Modalities of Literature in Latin America, and Latin American Literature: Subject to History. (For details, see Appendix.) Rather than offering a mere chronological sequencing of information, at every step the historiographical method deployed will attempt to map out the material ground, examine the cultural/institutional formations that have direct bearing on literary production and its dissemination, and offer a self-consciously constructed, historical narrative situated within the framework of that cultural context. This should allow the reader to witness a complex network of cultural development over time.

The first volume establishes the parametersgeographic, linguistic, and socialof the field of action for the history of these various literary cultures. The second volume concentrates on cultural modalities, discursive modes, institutional sanctions, and the geographical centers that both attract and irradiate the writers and their works throughout wider and wider circles of distribution and influence. These centers make up the constellation of major and lesser concentrations of literary activity which are linked not only to each other but also to expatriate centers in places such as Paris and New York. The third volume focuses on modes of representation and the resultant narrative web that connects the cultural centers with each other and with European and (English-speaking) North American centers. These collective threads construct the fabric of the shared culture and identify the key role of certain individual writers whose works have become major cultural forces. Authors such as Sor Juana, Rubén Darío, Pablo Neruda, Jorge Luis Borges, or Gabriel García Márquez, whose writings have been translated and transmitted far beyond their place of origin, become the major indicators of the cultural reality of Latin America. But when taken out of that local context, they create yet another "Latin America" which exists elsewherein the fabulations created by cultural distance. Like the first two, the third volume has its own specific structure and logic. The first section approaches Latin American literary history through specific complementary angles that permit the building of a Latin American perspective on literary culture that hopes to resist localisms and regionalisms. The second section narrates the history of cultural encounters: these are tales of syncretism, hybridity, and adaptation. The central focus is on the specificities of the phenomenon of transculturation as it pertains to the special cases within Latin America. Finally, in the third section, the self-reflexive focus is on this, our century as the temporal moment from which the entire history is being configured and narrated.

Coming as it does at the end of the twentieth century, this project recognizes and responds to the interpretive principle that historiography always involves the narrative possibilities of the past dialectically linked with the perspective of the present-day historian: the historical past is a construct we conceptually configure by means of conditions made possible by our own present. So, this literary history will be no single, critical recitation of dates, facts, or events. Instead, historical materials will be subject to the multiple interpretations of the 125 scholars who are engaged in writing this collaborative history of cultural formations. At this particular moment in the century, we would do well to be mindful of the admonition of Francisco Goya from the last century: "The dream of reason produces monsters." The greatest virtue of collaboration may well be a vigilance engendered among the team members. Thus we hope to avoid that slumber of reason that even in our time continues to produce the monsters of rabid nationalism which, more often than not, has served as cover for gross political and economic exploitation of the many by the few. In seeking a model of shared culture, this project hopes to go beyond divisive nationalisms, while eschewing imperial master narratives that replicate such domination.

In conclusion, for whom is this sort of literary history written, and to what end? It is written for those in and out of the Americas who are interested in the exploration of a very distinct and complex, shared cultural history and its literary formations. It aims to build a readable, perspectival account, but also to create a collaborative research instrument that continuously opens up new lines of inquiry, one that does not close upon an official history or a master text that reduces all questions to one version and one interpretation. At its nineteenth-century height, literary history in its various forms did tend to "close up"; it saw as one of its tasks the contextualizing of literature in history according to certain specific modelsfrom Hegel's unified spirit of an age to Dilthey's characteristic mentality or Geist, in which the "context" was cultural (philosophical, religious, legal, aesthetic, scientific) but certainly not material, social, or political (Note 10). For over a century now there have been cries for the abandonment of literary history (Note 11). Its demise as a discipline within literary studies has been announced for at least the last thirty years (Note 12). And recent commentators on the nature of the beast have been as painfully suspicious of its habits as their predecessors had been unselfconsciously confident (Note 13). Today, under the diverse influences of, to name but a few, cultural anthropology, communications theory, cultural semiotics, hermeneutics, critical legal theory, the "new geography," and the theories of Michel Foucault, there is a much more supple sense of the possible intersections of the literary and its wider socio-political contexts. It is within this frame of reference that Latin American Literatures: A Comparative History of Cultural Formations situates itself (Note 14).


1. This Occasional Paper is a follow-up to Rethinking Literary History--Comparatively (ACLS Occasional Paper 27; 1995) by Mario Valdés and Linda Hutcheon, with the significant addition of Djelal Kadir, major editor of this project on Latin America. Back to text.

2. For instance, Emory Elliott, ed., Columbia Literary History of the United States (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988) and Denis Hollier, ed., A New History of French Literature (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989). Back to text.

3. John Moss, Enduring Dreams: An Exploration of Arctic Landscape (Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 1994), 1. Back to text.

4. The idea here is to map the location (at different historical moments) of various institutions within Latin America: film, television, radio studios; theaters; museums; universities and academies; book and periodical publishing; public archives. Back to text.

5. See Mark Schoenfeld and Valerie Traub, "Forum" section, PMLA 111.2 (1996): 281: "It might be useful to supplant the epistemological privilege of evidence with that of the predictive hypothesis: If we hypothesize X, what do we bring to light that might otherwise have been occluded? Using predictive hypotheses provisionally is a tenuous, enabling form of scholarship that demands intellectual generosity. The payoff is the foregrounding of evidence as a circular, accretive construction contingent on historical selectivity and disciplinary criteria." Back to text.

6. A great novel costs the same as a bad one to produce and to buy; a cultural masterpiece may languish for years, while a fashionable work has immediate commercial success. Back to text.

7. See Roberto Maria Dainotto, "`All the Regions Do Smilingly Revolt': The Literature of Place and Region," Critical Inquiry 22 (Spring 1996): 486-505. One of the important insights of this article is its connection between regionalism today and nationalism: "they speak the same language; they foster the same desires, menacing and childish, of purity and authenticity" (505). Back to text.

8. See the special issue of Journal of Interdisciplinary Literary Studies on "Fragmented Identities: Postmodernism in Spain and Latin America," 7.2 (1995). Back to text.

9. Recognizing that the definition of the "literary" has changed over the centuries and in different places, this project will define it, as noted earlier, as verbal discourse, both oral and written, both performative and read, both fictional and non-fictional. Back to text.

10. There were, of course, important attempts to see literature as the direct reflection of social change in the work of Hippolyte Taine and many Marxist literary historians. Back to text.

11. In "The Fall of Literary History," in his The Attack on Literature and Other Essays (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982), René Wellek outlined some of these attacks, from W.P. Ker's 1883 claim that literary history provided only a museum or gallery, through Croce's 1917 idealist position that works of art are unique and no continuity can therefore be found among them, to the New Critical and Leavisite views and Emil Staiger's phenomenological protest. Back to text.

12. In 1970, the journal New Literary History devoted one of its first issues to the question "Is Literary History Obsolete?" Back to text..

13. See, for example, David Perkins, Is Literary History Possible? (Balti-more: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), ix, on the "always unsuccessful attempt of every literary history to explain the development of literature that it describes." Lawrence Lipking, in "Night Thoughts on Literary History," in Herbert L. Sussmann, ed., Literary History: Theory and Practice, Proceedings of the North-eastern University Center for Literary Studies, volume 2 (1984), 78, writes of literary history as "a shifty and awkward and devious kind of work, and perfection is not to be expected of it." Back to text.

14. An East Central Europe project, focussing primarily on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, has also been organized under the auspices of the same group at the University of Toronto Literary History Project and begins its collaborative meetings in the fall of 1996. We hope to be able to report on its progress to interested colleagues in due time. Back to text.


Latin American Literatures:
Comparative History of Cultural Formations

Editors: Mario J Valdés and Djelal Kadir

Volume One (600 pp)
Configurations of Literary Culture in Latin America

  1. Parameters of Literary Culture
    Coordinators: Daniel Castillo-Durante, Beatriz Garza-Cuarón, Hervé Thery
    • Geographic factors and the formation of cultural terrain for literary production
    • Demographics and the formation of cultural centers
    • Socioeconomic factors in the production of cultural dis- courses
    • Access and participation in the literary cultures of Latin America
    • The linguistic diversity of Latin American literatures

  2. Exclusions and Marginalizations in the Literary Histories of Latin America
    Coordinators: Heloisa Buarque de Hollanda, Marlyse Meyer, Elizabeth Monasterios, Cynthia Steele
    • Racial and ethnic exclusions
    • Exclusion by gender or sexual preference
    • Exclusion by class
    • Political exclusion
    • Linguistic exclusion

  3. The Development of Latin American Culture without Borders
    Coordinators: Raúl Antelo, Eugenia Meyer, Carlos Monsiváis, Eneida Maria de Souza
    1. Literary models of the oral tradition
    2. Forms of theatre and musical theatre and their social significance
    3. Paraliterature and television serials
    4. Cinema
    5. Political, scientific and religious writing

    Volume Two (800 pp)
    Institutional Modes and Cultural Modalities of Literature
    in Latin America
    1. Cultural Institutions
      Coordinators: Lisa Block de Behar, Tania Franco Carvalhal
      • History of the book, its production and imports in Latin America
      • Patronage, censorship, and state institutions
      • Schools, colleges, universities, museums, cultural associations, libraries and academies
      • Media literary criticism: cultural journalism
      • Translation as cultural institution

    2. Literary Models and their Transformations in Latin America
      Coordinators: Randolph Pope, Flora Sussekind
      • Novel and journalism: Strategic interchanges
      • The performance of poetry: Public and private vocations
      • Topography of narratives and the novelistic imagination
      • The testimonial as genre and cultural chronicle
      • Spaces of the essay: Schooling the national self

    3. The Cultural Centers of Latin America
      Coordinators: Eduardo de Faria Coutinho, Victoria Peralta
      • Northern Mexico and the northern borderland (includes Mexico and U.S.A.)
      • Mesoamerica (includes Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras)
      • Central America and the Caribbean (includes Costa Rica, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Panama, Colombia, Cuba, Puerto Rico, República Dominicana, Venezuela)
      • Andean America (includes Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela)
      • Amazonian America and Amazonian borderland (includes Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Guyanas, Peru, Venezuela)
      • Eastern Brazil (includes Northeast and Southeast)
      • Rio de la Plata, the Pampas and southern borderlands (includes Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay)
      • Cono Sur (includes Argentina, Chile)
      • Expatriate Latin America in U.S.A. (New York)
      • Expatriate Latin America in Europe (Paris)

    Volume Three (600 pp)
    Latin American Literature: Subject to History
    1. Sites of Representation in the Literary Culture of Latin America:
      Foundations and Losses

      Coordinators: Doris Sommer, Maria Consuelo Cunha Campos
      • Epic voices: Encounters and foundations
      • The discourse of melancholy: A culture of loss
      • Narratives of legitimation, the discourse of hegemony and the hermeneutics of globalization
      • National installments: The erotics of modernity

    2. Processes of Literary Transculturation
      Coordinators: Wander Melo Miranda, Alberto Moreiras, Iris Zavala
      • Literary transculturation in South America
      • Literary transculturation in Mesoamerica and the Caribbean

    3. The Literary Culture of Latin America in the Twentieth Century
      Coordinators: Renato Cordeiro Gomes, Djelal Kadir, Silviano Santiago
      • Immigrations, exile and displacements
      • Modernity, modernisms and their (Post-) avatars
      • Ideologies and the imaginary
Back to Top