Thwarted Universalisms and Latin American Identity


Sao Paulo, Brazil. Photograph by Diego Torres Silvestre.

by Gerardo Muñoz

Limits of identity: Politics and Poetics in Latin America,
by Charles Hatfield,
Austin: University of Texas Press, 158 pp.

In spite of its simplicity and methodical pragmatism, Charles Hatfield’s Limits of identity: Politics and Poetics in Latin America (University of Texas Press, 2015) is an ambitious and systematic effort to dismantle some of the predominant variations of identarianism that feed the discursive apparatus of Latinamericanism in a period that spans over a century, from José Martí’s “Nuestra América” (1891) to John Beverley’s Latinamericanism after 9/11 (Pittsburgh Press, 2011) [1]. The organization of this book, however, is not chronological nor is it structured around case studies based on regions or authors. Rather, the five chapters take up major discursive sites – meaning, beliefs, culture, memory, and ‘politics of latinamericanism’ – that have yet to produce intellectual reflection outside of the identity and difference schematization. Against diverse forms of identitarianism that maneuver to reserve proper subject positions, Hatfield’s endorsement is a return of universalism committed to the autonomy of beliefs. Early in his introduction he lays out the stakes of his work:

I suggest that, far from begin something any one needs to return to, universalism is already something we are committed to inasmuch as we have beliefs, regard of the particular, local reason we invoke to justify them. For it is in the act of invoking reasons to justify a belief in the first place that we both glimpse the universal and realize that our reason for holding our beliefs are not merely “our” reasons but in fact the right reasons. (Hatfield 5).

Departing from Walter Ben Michaels and Stanley Fish’s renewal of pragmatism, the universalism endorsed by Hatfield has little to do with the well-known attempts that claim (for Latin America) a universality as the true “origin” of Western universalization, or in other cases the “aspiration” for entering cosmopolitan globality. Avoiding these traps – which are fundamentally ‘kojeavean traps’ of the cunning of the philosophy of history – Hatfield proposes a universality based on the truth of our beliefs as fundamentally transcending our singular subject position. Hatfield distinguishes his form of universalism from the commonplace forms of universality as ideology or inverted philosophies of history: “…universalism is neither an ideology, nor a faith, nor an epistemology. It is intrinsic to beliefs, and is thus present in every belief and in every rationality” (Hatfield 48). This minimal condition must be accepted for the development of Hatfield’s critical architectonics to stay in place. Racism comes up throughout the book as a hyperbolic case to exemplify this premise: If I am committed to anti-racism, it is not because I position myself in the subjective cultural position of the other, but rather because I am committed to the belief that racism is unacceptable in spite of my subject position.

More importantly for Hatfield, the task is to establish the universality of beliefs that would allow for the real possibility of disagreement. If everyone remains tied to their subject position (“this is my truth”, a reenactment of the Lutheran praxis), then any possibility of transcending our beliefs for disagreement is abolished. The consequences of doing away with disagreement is monstrous. Like erasing Schmitt’s definition of the political, understood as the minimal unity for conflict, the active erasure of disagreement resorts necessarily to consent and identitarianism [2]. In fact, one can say when reading Hatfield’s book, that all hegemony in the Latin American Cultural field has been one that is in some form or another dependent on identitarianism. In detriment of a strong assertion of the political as antagonism (these are now my Schmittian terms, not Hatfield’s), what is being renounced is the potential for a democratic expansive form of politics tout court.

As long as we remain bound to a politics of a subject-position, the politicity of Latinamericanism would remain not only deficient but also exercising the much-needed labor of neoliberal machination that hinges effectively on identities and visible subject positions. This is, in fact, Hatfield’s criticism in his “Coda: A New Latinamericanism?” where he shows how the global force of dehierarchization cannot be answered with a seemingly well-intentioned discourse centered on the same principle of dehierarchization that has been “ceded to the market and to neoliberalism” (Hatfield 103). The mirroring of identitarian (subject) subalternity with market neoliberalism is the culminating moment, as Hatfield’s glosses John Beverley’s program, the ‘new’ ‘post-subalternism’ becomes indistinct to the classical articulation of pre-9/11 subalternity:

Beverley sets out to identify what might be “the form of a new Latinamericanism capable of confronting U.S hegemony and expressing an alternative future for the peoples of the Americas” (18). But Beverley’s new Latin Americanism sounds almost like a definition of the old one. Beverley’s description of the new Latin Amercianist project he is proposing, which will center around the “affirmation of the distinctness of Latin American as a ‘civilization in the face of North American and European domination, without falling back on the exhausted formulas of a complacent creole-mestizo nationalism…[…] Indeed, politics in Latinamericanism after 9/11 crucially involves recovering and recognizing identities and subject positons buried beneath layers of imported practices and beliefs  – what Beverley calls “the emancipation of Latin America as Latin America” (25). The echo of classic Latin Americanism could not be more clearly heard here. (Hatfield 105-106).

Even though Hatfield does not offer a program for a “new Latinamericanism”, the five chapters that make up Limits of identity could well be said to give us in the negative side of what a new latinamericanism is not. Chapters 1 and 2 deal with ‘culture’ and ‘beliefs’. Both nineteenth century letrados like José Martí and Enrique Rodó appear as cruxes for the ambiguities ingrained in the disavowal of universality in favor of a “cultura de nosotros” (Nuestra America), and a set of beliefs that must remain “ours” against the anxiety of the mimicry of European values and ideals. In fact, both Ariel and “Nuestra América” function as hyperbolic referents of a first criollo latinoamericanism invested in constructing the parameters of property and propriety. Marti’s imperative for Latin Americans “to show herself [America] as she is”, although deprived of racial divides and hierarchies, posits the “duty” (in both moral and practical ways) at the kernel of a new culturalism. Whereas Rodó’s commitment to “spiritual selection”, continues Hatfield, “projects into the future becomes obsessed with maintaining, preserving, and continuing [the past culture]” (Hatfield 44). On the other side of Martí and Rodó, there are foils like Rodolfo Kush’s indigenous thought, Walter Mignolo’s decoloniality, or Roberto Fernandez Retamar’s Caliban; each in their own specific way relativized subject positions or filled contents with a commandment of what it means to be “Latin American”.

Part of the squirted brilliance of Hatfield’s book has to do with the juxtaposition – such as Rodó with Kusch – that show the extent to which the machine of identity and difference grafted onto what it “means to be Latin American” ends up paying a high price not only politically, but also analytically: “…between a commitment to ingenious thinking and a commitment to identity and difference. To choose the latter is to foreclose on the very real possibility that the belief sand values held by millions of Latin Americas are undergirded by reasons that are not only their reasons but also the right reasons” (Hatfield 53).

The subsequent chapters ‘Meaning’ and ‘Memory’ could be read as two different responses to the persistence of locationalism. In regards to ‘meaning’, Hatfield takes up the question of two interrelated textual conditions: the author’s intention and the subjective position of the reader as artifice of the text. Against all postmodernism hymns to receptive expressiveness, Hatfield ascribes authorial intentionality as metonymic for a universality that allows for disagreement about the text in question. On the side of the subjective position, locationalism becomes the norm in which to delimit and police what counts for a “proper” reading of the text (here Roman de la Campa’s rhetoric of positionality combined with Fernandez Retamar’s subject position of the reader amounts to yet another fold of identitarianism). Borges’ “Pierre Menard” becomes important for Hatfield not only for the obvious reasons that it is a text that advances the hypothesis that fantasmatic authorial intention does matter, but perhaps more important still because it offers “a much-needed logic by which we can disagree with those politics [reactionary politics according to Beverley’s Subalternity and Representation] and reject them” (Hatfield, 77).

All politics of locationism or of “locus of enunciation” function on the condition of reception of meaning, avoiding as a result disagreement as the minimal unit of politics. The chapter ‘Memory’ is substantially the most groundbreaking, and this is not because of the juxtaposition that vexes in a common ground allegedly dissimilar positions (Sarlo coincides with Beverley on the politics of memory). Rather, it offers a sophisticated hypothesis as to why the “turn to memory”, which coincided with the ‘big-bang of neoliberalism’ and the so-called transition to democracy in the Southern Cone, compensated for the loss of a politics of resistance (the ultimate defeat of the Left and the disintegration of real existing socialism) inscribing the duty to remember as the quintessential Latin American identity labor. Whenever memory is casted it has or assumes identity as an a priori. The problem of memory is not that it is selective (Beatriz Sarlo’s hypothesis), nor that it is the counterpart of historical master knowledge (Bonfil Battalla’s Mexico Profundo or Verdesio’s Charruas), but that it becomes a duty for anyone invested in a progressive horizon of politics, having to decide on the ground of total enmity and decisionism [3]. Although this is not explicitly thematized in Hatfield’s chapter, the way ‘Memory’ is presented here amounts to an extreme polarization without the possibility of truth and justice. Or in Beverley’s terms: this position amounts to a production of subalternization with no end.

Limits of identity is a book that perhaps will be misunderstood precisely because of its efforts to change the very terms of the debates in Latinamericanism. But it is precisely for this reason that this book should be welcomed. Perhaps Hatfield sidesteps too quickly the fact that identitarian positions are at times not taken as such by those who subscribe to them. Rather, there will be many (decolonialists included) that will consider themselves the “true universalists”, speaking from the legitimacy of a universality, even if they are just nothing but thwarted universalisms. To put in concrete terms: a fundamental consequence that can be derived from Hatfield’s pragmatic elaboration seems to be the endorsement for some form of radical democracy or republicanism of the singular. Hatfield’s universality is far from the orthodox economicist universality casted a few years ago in Vivek Chibber’s Postcolonial Theory and the specter of Capital (2013). But it also differs drastically from the anti-affirmative action universalism associated with Richard Rodriguez’s elitist argument in Hunger of Memory (1982). The fact that Hatfield seeks to suspend matrixes of identity is a political task that has in its horizon radical equality. Once the identitarian determination is cast aside, there is no longer the possibility of neoliberal justifications that see in the exploited or in the informal subject a culture of resistance (Hatfield 108). It is identitarian positionality that justifies through cultural dehiarchization inequality in the uneven movement of capitalist accumulation.

A legitimate question arises: is Latinamericanism even desired on these terms? Will Hatfield’s concerns be audible to critics that remain for the most part alien to intellectual disagreement and singularity as a condition? Or is the “Coda” in the book to be read, paraphrasing T. J. Clark, as a ‘farewell to an idea’ (the idea of Latinamericanism)? First, it seems safe to say that as long as there is a Latin American archive, there is no easy way of escaping Latinamericanism understood in the broad sense of a space for the production of reflection on Latin America in any given location. Second, latinamericanism is already what we do. The point being that what is demanded is just another freedom; concretely to be freed from the identitarian machines that police the order of what can be agreed upon, and what is postulated as duty.

Hatfield seems committed to both of these options. Indeed, one could argue that he would not have written the book if it had been for a commitment to some principle of justice and disagreement within latinamericanist reflection. In fact, latinamericanism seems to be the necessary site in which disagreements are to be waged. No disagreement is possible with a commitment to identity; but no new politics of disagreement is possible in the advent of a post-latinamericanism.

I thank the lively discussion with Maria Pape, Derek Beaudry, Sebastian Figueroa, and Dana Khromov as part of the first meeting of “Theorizing Latin America Group”. Hatfield’s Limits of identity: politics and poetics in Latin America (U Texas Press, 2015) is the first in a series of discussions of recent publications in the field.

Cover image by Ana12321


[1] For a concise piece on John Beverley’s position on the Latin American Pink Tide, see his “Latin America after 9/11: Geopolitics and the Pink Tide“. Berfrois, January 6, 2012.

[2] Christian Meier. “From Politikos to the Modern Concept of the Political,” in The Greek Discovery of Politics. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990.

[3] At the end of the chapter “Memory”, Hatfield argues that the stakes in the politics of memory amount to a decision between two forms of sadism: “…this way of understanding violence reduces all conflicts in Latin American history to conflicts between identities or between two competing attitudes toward “ethnic difference”. Celebrating it is obviously the right choice, but we should ask ourselves who benefits at whose expense when politics is reduced to that choice – when, in other words, the Sendero Luminoso and the Peruvian army are thought to be merely two difference faces of sadism, or when respect for the poor, rather than ending poverty, become the cornerstone of politics for the Left”. Pg. 100.

About the Author:


Gerardo Muñoz is a doctoral candidate at Princeton University specializing in the intersection between Latin American culture, State and political thought. He writes frequently for the argentine online publication Lobo Suelto, and is a member of the academic collective “Infrapolitical Deconstruction