This is a collection of foundational texts on a new paradigm in Latin American studies. That sentence may appear oxymoronic, because postmodernism is weary of foundations and defiant of paradigms. This anthology, nevertheless, indicates a paradigmatic shift, à la Kuhn. The borders of the emerging postmodern framework are not clear, and neither is the core definition of postmodernism. This is not surprising; after all, postmodernism thrives on liminality and eclecticism. Still, certain features of the postmodern sensibility (or approach) are shared by most of the contributors to this book.
There is little debate here; if one expects an interparadigm exchange (between positivists and postmoderns), one will be disappointed. What this book delivers is closer to an intraparadigm discussion on the meaning, varieties, and applications of postmodernism to interdisciplinary studies of Latin America. From this perspective, the book is a tour de force. The collection is a rich, multitextured collage. It includes extraordinary examples of scholarship, such as Arnoldo Canclini on the notion of cultural hybridity; Norbert Lechner’s essay, “A Disenchantment called Postmodernism”; and an insightful introduction by the editors (required reading).
Despite the generality high caliber of the essays, some sections (or authors) read like a satire of postmodernism, in which language is used to make anything and everything unintelligible: “I would like to turn to the question of the incidence of this reflection on the hybrid in the political field. In fact, to me, the notion of the hybrid culture poses the problem of how political strategies arise as moments of signification, as precarious regimes of confrontation between systems of discourse” (p. 81).
Like that quotation, the editors’ decision to include the Zapatista National Liberation Army’s “Declaration from the Lancandon Jungle” raises more questions than it answers. Is the act of rebellion a postmodern sign? (I don’t think so.) Is there anything particularly postmodern about the ZNLA that is not apparent in other guerrilla groups throughout Latin American history? (I am not quite convinced that there is.) Are new social movements postmodern per se? (Would the people in those organizations see themselves in that light?)
At the very least, a more convincing interpretation of the Zapatista phenomenon should have been offered. The notion of the book as collage has its limits. The inclusion of that document does not detract from the book’s merits, but it does raise an important issue. Postmodern intellectuals, by and large, continue the tradition of the Left (in the best cases, minus the simplistic dogmas) and the Latin American tradition of intellectuals as party poopers (a notion coined by Mario Vargas Llosa). As such, postmodernists carry an implicit presumption that progress, and perhaps even utopia, is possible. Despite our disillusionment with the modern experience, we are still children of the Enlightenment. This situation raises a fundamental question: can we, as subject-agents of an intellectual tradition of postmodernity, ever leave modernity behind? Have we been so deeply scripted by modernity that our scripts cannot escape it? Can we ever be postmodern?