Vol. 5 No. 2 Dec. 2021

Introduction: Exceptionalism and Its Discontents: Latin America as a Utopic Space
Author:João Cezar de Castro Rocha, Ran Wei    Time:2022-01-10    Click:

Beyond Exceptionalisms

A specter is haunting Latin American Studies: exceptionalism.1 In other words, the highly un-anthropological (if you can forgive us for inventing such an awkward word) assumption, according to which Latin American cultures defy interpreters, especially if they are foreigners, given their complexity beyond any possible translation into any system of references other than the ones provided by Latin American circumstances.

This proud belief tends to reduce—seen from a historical perspective—Latin America’s image to opposite poles: either its brutal denial or a pale projection of Europe’s utopic dreams. Let us briefly dwell on these extremes.

Hegel gave a final form to an old prejudice, already manifest in the apparently neutral designation “New World.”2 It implied the necessary precedence of an “Old World,” that is, more mature and above all civilized, representing a higher “phase” of human history. On the contrary, the newness of the New World was equaled to immaturity and instability; in one word, barbarism. In his Lectures on the Philosophy of History, the German philosopher uttered a severe verdict:

America has always shown itself physically and psychically powerless, and still shows itself so.

The original nation having vanished or nearly so, the effective population comes for the most part from Europe; and what takes place in America, is but an emanation from Europe. (98-99)

It is true that, at the end of his reasoning, Hegel came to a conclusion at once surpring and paradoxical:

What has taken place in the New World up to the present time is only an echo of the Old World—the expression of a foreign Life; and as a Land of the Future, it has no interest for us here, for, as regards History, our concern must be with that which has been and that which is.

Dismissing, then, the New World, and the dreams to which it may give rise, we pass over to the Old World—the scene of the World’s History (104)

After so many “lost decades” afflicting Latin American economies since at least 1945, it does not seem a wise decision to bet all your chips on the seemingly unavoidable future. The Austrian writer Stefan Zweig published in 1941 an optimistic essay, Brasilien—Ein Land der Zukunft. However, anguished Brazilians are still waiting for the stubborn future that insists in postponing its arrival— procrastination suddenly appears to be a Hegelian concept.

Edmundo O’Gorman in an insightful essay, The Invention of America, had already clarified the deep motivation behind the denial conveyed by Hegel. When invented—not discovered! —America, “the fourth part of the earth,” refused to accommodate to European desires. Rather, instead of being a modest island, a tiny fraction of Asia, the future “Land der Zukunft” revealed itself to be a solid and vast continent. Therefore, the project of finding an economic passage from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean could only be celebrated with the inauguration of the Panama Canal in 1914, after some three decades of the beginning of its construction. The mythical “Passage to the West” was an authentic rite of passage concerning the philosophical status of America. In O’Gorman’s eloquent description:

This notion of the new land as a barrier between Europe and Asia made them appear as a hindrance to fulfillment of the old desire for a short and easy way to the wealth of far eastern Asia. This helps us understand why it was at this point in time that there emerged an interest

in these new lands, no longer cast as a potential, disappointing Asia; and why it was followed by contempt for them and their nature, which gave rise to the voluminous historical phenomenon which I have dubbed elsewhere “the calumny of America” (167)

On the other hand, and to a certain extent a logical inversion of the first attitude towards the New World, Latin America became the pale projection of what Europe—in the 19th century—and the United States—notably from 1945 onwards—were not. Latin America writers, philosophers, and artists should content themselves in profiling their works and molding their personalities according to the Other’s expectations. Are Europeans primarily rational? Latin Americans should then be essentially emotional. Are North-Americans strictly pragmatic? Latin Americans should then be romantically idealistic. This was an easy game to play, although a tedious and melancholic one: being defined by contrast with a powerful Other limits drastically one’s own potentiality. Gabriel García Márquez hit upon the target in his Nobel Prize Lecture, “The Solitude of Latin America”:

The interpretation of our reality through patterns not our own, serves only to make us ever more unknown, ever less free, ever more solitary. . . .

Latin America neither wants, nor has any reason, to be a pawn without a will of its own; nor is it merely wishful thinking that its quest for independence and originality should become a Western aspiration. However, the navigational advances that have narrowed such distances between our Americas and Europe seem, conversely, to have accentuated our cultural remoteness. (web)

The two extremes end up mirroring each other as far as its main consequence is concerned: sheer denial or mere projection; in both cases, Latin American circumstances are rendered invisible.

Is there a way out of this labyrinth? Casting out any form of exceptionalism is a first step, which may enable us to take the road less travelled by, hoping it will make all the difference.

This Special Issue

This difference enlightens the driving force behind this special issue of the Journal of Foreign Languages and Cultures. Instead of insisting on sophisticated forms of exceptionalism, we have found inspiration in the insightful work of the Chinese comparatist and literary theorist Zhang Longxi who devoted to the understanding of the complex nature of cross-cultural relationships. Longxi has developed a thought-provoking approach unfolded since the publication of his groundbreaking book The Tao and the Logos.

In a nutshell, Longxi’s reflections depart from a philosophical assumption: regardless of specific historical contexts, human cultures have always needed to find proper ways of expressing themselves. Whoever conveys thoughts and emotions faces common challenges: how to make sure your expression is understood or even understandable? How to deal with different interpretations triggered by the “same” message?

In Longxi’s work, philosophical questions have to be met with an anthropological sensitivity, for any particular culture will formulate questions and provide answers within the scope of their own historical development. Longxi’s work opens up a new path that clarifies the originality of this special issue. It may be summed up through the reading of its table of contents, namely, building intellectual bridges that will broaden our horizons, and enrich our expectations.

The editors are grateful to our contributors and above all particularly proud by the notable selection of scholars brought together in this special issue of the Journal of Foreign Languages and Cultures.


1. A perfect formulation of the problem: “Two important concepts for Latin American(ist) cultural criticism define the focus of this essay: exceptionalism and Eurocentrism. The objective of my critique is to interrogate the limits of Latin American exceptionalism by placing it in dialectical tension with Eurocentrism” (Lund 54).

2. See the fundamental book by Antonello Gerbi, The Dispute of the New World: The History of a Polemic, 1750- 1900. U of Pittsburgh P, 1973.

Works Cited

García Márquez, Gabriel. “The Solitude of Latin America.” Nobel Lecture. The Nobel Prize, 8 Dec. 1982, www. nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/1982/marquez/lecture/.

Gerbi, Antonello. The Dispute of the New World: The History of a Polemic, 1750-1900. U of Pittsburgh P, 1973.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. The Philosophy of History. Translated by J. Sibree. Batoche, 2001.

Lund, Joshua. “Barbarian Theorizing and the Limits of Latin American Exceptionalism.” Cultural Critique, no. 47, Winter 2001, pp. 54-90.

O’Gorman, Edmundo. The Invention of America: An Inquiry into the Historical Nature of the New World and the Meaning of Its History. Indiana UP, 1961.

Zhang, Longxi. The Tao and the Logos: Literary Hermeneutics, East and West. Duke UP, 1992.

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