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John Charles Chasteen and Sara Castro-Klaren, editors: Beyond Imagined Communities: Reading and Writing the Nation in Nineteenth-Century Latin America.

Beyond Imagined Communities: Reading and Writing the Nation in Nineteenth-Century Latin America Washington, DC: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003, xxv + 252 pp.

This book originated from a conference held at the Woodrow Wilson Center in April of 2000 on Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities (1991, 1983). Its goal is to present a critical reassessment of Anderson's theoretical approach to nationalism. While this is a strong collection of essays, containing valuable new research on the late colonial and 19th centuries in Latin America, it is not completely coherent as a book. Even though the various authors acknowledge the theoretical value of Anderson's interpretation of nationalism and above all of his definition of the nation as an imagined community, they do not accept the chronology and the cause-and-effect account he offers to explain the emergence of nationalism in the Spanish American colonies.

The volume consists of a general introduction and eight essays, which are strictly divided between "history" and "fiction." In his introduction, John Chasteen includes an excellent summary and critique, raising some key questions about the validity of Anderson's arguments that suggest that "new nations" emerged out of "old empires" and that Creoles were "pioneers" in the "origin and spread of nationalism" in the Americas.

Individually, the essays are compelling. Those in the first part of the volume, entitled "The Historians," are written by historians preoccupied with the transition from colony to nation-building. In all cases, the essays open by questioning and then, for reasons that are particular to each author, quickly dismissing Anderson's account of Latin American nationalism. Tulio Halperin Donghi goes so far as to say that, "[Anderson's study] makes a contribution to its subject that is quite independent of the validity of its specific conclusions ... he got almost everything wrong" (33).

The essay that most specifically deals with and refutes Anderson's theories is "Forms of communication, political spaces, and cultural identities in the creation of Spanish American nations," by Francois-Xavier Guerra. Guerra begins by dispensing with Anderson's position that it was the itineraries of colonial Creole functionaries that mapped the future territories of the new nations. Guerra's point throughout is that many of Anderson's contentions, if they have any validity at all, apply only for the post-crisis or postcolonial periods after 1808, and as such could not have been causal factors in the colonial or pre-independence formation of American nationalities. As Guerra argues, the "national" affiliations of many "pueblos" or towns and cities were unclear, and concentric spheres of sovereignty rarely yielded to the "homogenizing" forces of national integration projected from an ex-colonial administrative centre. Instead, the territorial history of independence is the history of the break-up of colonial viceroyalties into regional fragments, the consequence of caudillo-led internal war. As a result, "the distinctive cultural content" of the new nations had to be invented after independence (32).

In "Argentine counterpoint: Rise of the nation, rise of the state," Halperin Donghi draws attention to the exceptionality of Buenos Aires' political, territorial, and social situation at the beginning of the independence movement, claiming that an Argentine community did exist during the Independence wars. However, in his view, the revolution of 1810 in the Rio de la Plata had little to do with nationalism and the search for common roots, and more to do with the search for "a credible substitute for monarchy as a font of political legitimacy" (35). This credible substitute, Donghi argues, was not available prior to the Napoleonic invasion of the Spanish Empire and the exit of the Bourbon king.

Sarah Chambers's essay, "Letters and salons: Women reading and writing the nation," introduces the topic of gender into Anderson's abstract, supposedly gender-neutral sphere. She proposes instead to study the role of women and letter writing as mediating forces between the private and public domains. According to Chambers, this change of focus reveals that emerging concepts of the nation as imagined communities were rooted in the social interactions of smaller but more tangible communities of writers, readers, and conversationalists. These women's sense of belonging to a nation emerged from relationships they maintained with prominent leaders through letter writing. Women envisioned themselves as mediators of divisive national politics but suffered the same fate as their male counterparts: bitter disillusionment and exile.

Drawing much more upon Angel Rama's concept of the "lettered city" (1996), Andrew Kirkendall in "Student culture and nation-state formation" claims that the letrados (lettered elites) were the first national class to be conscious of their rights and privileges. In his exploration of the relationship between institutions of higher education and the formation of nationstate and political class in Argentina, Brazil, and Chile after independence, Kirkendall claims that the imagined communities they helped design were far from horizontal, since they kept many of the hierarchical distinctions of the colonial past.

The second part of the book, titled "The Critics," comprises essays written by literary and cultural critics dealing with the cultural practices and discourses that helped to shape Latin America's national imagined communities fundamentally during the second half of the 19th century. Following Doris Sommer's influential Foundational Fictions (1991), Fernando Unzueta argues that 19th-century romantic fictions negotiated racial and regional contradictions while promoting a program of civic virtue for the readers. Unzueta focuses on the "scenes of reception" of these novels by asking how national fiction might have been read. Although cautioning that "much more research is needed," Unzueta suggests that "patriotic stories actually changed people's lives" (155).

The essay by Sara Castro-Klaren describes the emergence and political uses of archaeology as national discourse in the late 19th century in Peru. By comparing several Andean texts, she illustrates a paradigm shift between Garcilaso de la Vega's Comentarios reales (1609) and Mariano Eduardo Rivero's Antiguedades Peruanas (1851). The first helped revive interest in the Inca past, create sites of memory, and legitimize the protonationalist movement of Tupac Amaru II. However, the idea of an ethnographic nation gave way to Rivero's sanitized "archaeospace" as foundation for a national project.

Gustavo Verdesio's chapter points to the intrinsically discriminating nature and the systematic exclusion of Amerindian peoples in Uruguayan official discourses. After the Charrua massacre (1831), historians erased national memory of the atrocity and denied aboriginal cultures a place in history because it contradicted European ideals of progress. Archaeological discourse, as well as fiction and history, Verdesio contends, have successfully reinforced negative stereotypes of the indigenous Other.

In the final essay, Beatriz Gonzalez Stephan argues that the construction of national identities in 19th-century Latin America depended to a large extent on the circulation and display of symbolic goods through what she calls a "grammar" of accumulation. She explores the proliferation of commodities, arguing that the production of national heritage depended on a new economy of representation, intimately linked to the mass market and the culture of spectacle. Museums, anthologies, literary histories, and universal exhibitions were all organized by the same model of display as "railroads, bridges, telephones, and telegraphs." They are all "galleries," that is, "showcases of consumption" for the international market (226, 238). By broadening the notion of print culture, Gonzalez Stephan manages to avoid making conclusions about the "nation," contrary to Anderson, exclusively from materials generated by and for literate political male elites.

Although a more explicit interdisciplinary dialogue would have been desirable, both the array of analytical approaches offered by the authors and the range of countries and archival sources covered by both sections are certainly remarkable. Thus, this is primarily an excellent volume for historians and literary scholars whose areas of research include the late colonial period and the 19th century in Latin America. However, all those interested in the process leading to the construction of nations in Latin America, as well as the multitudes of those who have been captivated by Anderson's groundbreaking work, will find the volume most rewarding.

May E. Bletz, Brock University
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Author:Bletz, May E.
Publication:Canadian Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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