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The Limits of Identity

The Limits of Identity
Politics and Poetics in Latin America

Ranging over works of literature, political theory, and cultural criticism from the nineteenth century to the twenty-first, this book offers a radical challenge to the theory of anti-universalism widely accepted in Latin American studies.

Series: Border Hispanisms

November 2015
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168 pages | 6 x 9 |

The Limits of Identity is a polemical critique of the repudiation of universalism and the theoretical commitment to identity and difference embedded in Latin American literary and cultural studies. Through original readings of foundational Latin American thinkers (such as José Martí and José Enrique Rodó) and contemporary theorists (such as John Beverley and Doris Sommer), Charles Hatfield reveals and challenges the anti-universalism that informs seemingly disparate theoretical projects.


The Limits of Identity offers a critical reexamination of widely held conceptions of culture, ideology, interpretation, and history. The repudiation of universalism, Hatfield argues, creates a set of problems that are both theoretical and political. Even though the recognition of identity and difference is normally thought to be a form of resistance, The Limits of Identity claims that, in fact, the opposite is true.


  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: Culture
  • Chapter 2: Beliefs
  • Chapter 3: Meaning
  • Chapter 4: Memory
  • Coda: A New Latin Americanism?
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Dallas, Texas

Hatfield is an associate professor of Latin American studies at the University of Texas at Dallas.



In Jorge Luis Borges’s “Conjectural Poem” (1943), Doctor Francisco Laprida reflects on his life in the moments before his violent death at the hands of “a band of gaucho militia” on September 22, 1829.¹ As bullets “whip the air” on Laprida’s “last afternoon,” he knows that the gauchos, whom he calls “barbarians,” have won (145). Yet Laprida confesses that “a secret joy somehow swells my breast” (145). Laprida feels joy, he says, because he finds himself at last “face to face” with his “South American destiny” (145). He is dying, but he is also seeing his “true face” (145).

The fact that Laprida calls the gauchos “barbarians” evokes Domingo Faustino Sarmiento’s civilization/barbarism binary pitting urban, European “civilization” against rural, autochthonous “barbarism.” As Sarmiento argued in Facundo: Civilization and Barbarism (1845), the question facing Argentina in the middle of the nineteenth century was “to be or not to be savages.”² This conception of civilization and barbarism has traditionally been criticized for its universality—for the fact, in other words, that it sees difference in terms of a universalizing disagreement about culture and politics.

The speaker in Borges’s poem had devoted himself to the civilizing project in nineteenth-century Argentina, with its intrinsic universalism and attendant hierarchies. His voice had “declared the independence / of this entire untamed territory,” he says, and he “longed” to “weigh / judgments, to read books, to hand down the law” (145). But as he faces his death, Laprida repudiates the beliefs that had guided his life, realizing that they had really involved the desire “to be someone else,” and thus his entire life had been a “labyrinth of steps” away from his origins (145).


In Borges’s poem, Laprida’s desire “to be someone else” is strikingly linked with beliefs. However, his return to his presumably real self entails not the replacement of one set of beliefs with another but rather the replacement of beliefs with something other than belief—namely, nature, embodiment, and experience. Laprida had spent his life committed to beliefs that were thought to transcend particulars—he embraced the political ideology of independence, the law, and the world of knowledge found in books. But the path that leads him to his “South American destiny” crucially involves his body—he is overcome with blood, sweat, and pain—and the very natural world that Laprida, like Sarmiento, would have likely seen as the source of Argentina’s barbarism. Thus, it is as if Borges suggests that Laprida’s return to his true self is necessarily conditioned by his abandonment of beliefs in favor of his body and nature. Indeed, Laprida’s discovery of his “true face” is virtually simultaneous with the ripping open of his chest and the release of his blood in the final moments of his life.

Thus, avant la lettre, Laprida engages what today we might call, following Walter Mignolo, “decoloniality,” which dispels the “myth of universality” and proceeds from the assumption that “hierarchies are constructed [. . .] in the very process of building the idea of Western civilization and of modernity.”³ Indeed, the only adjective given to the knife that will cut Laprida’s throat is “intimate” (145), despite the fact that, at least in Facundo, the knife is literally and figuratively synonymous with barbarism (Rosas, writes Sarmiento, “sticks the gaucho’s knife into cultured Buenos Aires”).

Beliefs are either true or false, and the fact that a belief is ours is irrelevant to the question of whether or not it is true. In the absence of his beliefs, and the so-called “myth” of their universality, Laprida can describe things only in terms of his identity with them or experience of them. The only thing that matters about the knife is that it is his; in place of the question of whether the knife is civilized or barbaric, Laprida faces only the question of whether or not it is his—hence his sudden confrontation with his “true face” in the “night’s mirror” (145).

Laprida’s demise at the hands of gauchos is, in a sense, the fulfillment of what the dominant strain of Latin Americanist thought—at least since José Martí’s “Nuestra América” (1891)—has desired. Laprida decolonizes himself, stripping away layers of imported practices and beliefs to allow his supposedly authentic self to come into existence. Laprida sees a circle about to “close,” suggesting a fullness and completeness with his “South American destiny” that would never have been found in books or “canon law and civil [law]” (145). But inasmuch as all this is achieved with the cutting of his throat, Borges might seem to be implying that identity does not come without a high price.

That price is the subject of this book, which begins by exploring the implications of the idea in José Martí’s “Nuestra América” (1891) that what is good or true depends on who we are—and ends by considering the political stakes and logical consequences involved in both the affirmation of identity and the repudiation of the universal in the present. This book challenges a series of widely held theoretical positions within Latin American literary and cultural studies—in particular, the idea that cultural practices can be logically justified on the grounds that they are ours; the repudiation of authorial intention and the notion that a reader’s experience and participation are relevant to a text’s meaning; the notion that we can somehow remember historical events that we never experienced; and finally, the claim that the celebration of cultural difference is a form of resistance to neoliberalism. What these seemingly disparate claims all share is the desire to sidestep the universality that is intrinsic to all beliefs.

It is a commonplace to claim that there are many equally valid truths and that different beliefs, instead of being true or false, are merely the product of different worldviews, epistemologies, epistemic systems, cultures, and subject positions.5 Yet even those who make this claim, whenever they have disagreements, must nonetheless think their beliefs possess a truth that transcends particulars.6 Otherwise, disagreement would be impossible. To put this a different way: we often refer to our beliefs as “subjective,” but in order to disagree with others, we must think that the truth of our beliefs transcends our subject position. Otherwise, we would not be able to disagree. Disagreement thus reveals a simple truism about the nature of beliefs: to believe something is to believe that it is universally true.

Nevertheless, universalism is commonly viewed not as an inescapable fact about our beliefs but rather as something to be challenged and refuted. Étienne Balibar, for example, ties universalism to racism, and argues that it undergirds “the domination of some cultures on others,” a process that “works effectively only if those who carry them out [acts of domination] actually believe in their legitimacy and, indeed, in their truth, or in their being grounded in true doctrines.” Thus, he argues, universalism is merely the logical foundation for racist, discriminatory, and imperialist practices. However, Balibar’s denunciation of racism, sexism, and imperialism is already profoundly universalist, and it depends on its “being grounded in true doctrines” even though it undoubtedly emerges from a cultural and historical particular (not all cultures, for example, have condemned racism). If we recognize that racism and sexism have been, and unfortunately continue to be, indisputably part of the culture of many people, antiracism and antisexism will always imply the imposition of “some cultures on others.” But as long as we are committed to eradicating racism and sexism, it is hard to see why we should think this is a bad thing.

However, the recent work of theorists such as Ernesto Laclau and Slavoj Žižek has, in different ways, offered warnings about the political limitations of particularism and called for a return to universalism. Laclau, for example, has argued that now “we have an increasing proliferation of [. . .] particularistic demands that create the potential—but only the potential—for more expanded chains of equivalence than in the past and, as a result, the possibility of more democratic societies.” However, Laclau notes, “we are living at a time in which the great emancipatory narratives of the past are in sharp decline, and as a result [. . .] there are no easily available universalizing discourses which could perform the equivalential function” (209). Therefore, the task of the Left, argues Laclau, is “the construction of language providing that element of universality which makes possible the establishment of equivalential links” (209).

Laclau is right when he argues that the rejection of “universalism in toto as the particular content of the West [. . .] can only lead to a political blind alley.”¹¹ But ultimately Laclau sees universalism as a worthy aspiration that can never be achieved: universalism, he writes, “is incommensurable with any particularity yet cannot exist apart from the particular” (90). Universalism for Laclau is therefore an “impossible task that makes democratic interaction achievable” (90). But the universal is not a “task” that is achieved after everyone agrees; instead, it is what allows us to disagree in the here and now. Moreover, it does not bear the kind of complex relation to the particular that Laclau describes, and it is far from being an impossibility.

Stanley Fish, for example, has recently rehearsed many of the usual critiques of universalism, conceding not only that “our convictions cannot be grounded in any independent source of authority,” but also that we will never be able to “settle the question of which epistemic system is correct” from outside our epistemic system. Nevertheless, Fish argues, the “unavailability of independent grounds—of foundations that are general and universal rather than local and contextual—is fraught with no implications at all.” In other words, once we realize that our beliefs “are not underwritten by grounds independent of the complex of assumptions and experience from which they emerge,” we also realize that our beliefs “are none the worse (or better) for that, because that same complex of assumptions and experience provides [us] with everything (knowledge, imperatives, confidence) promised by the independent grounds [we] will never find.”¹4 Rather than posit that any of this forecloses on the possibility of the universal, Fish claims that rationality is not “a single thing whose protocols can be recognized and accepted by persons of varying and opposing beliefs.”¹5 Therefore, he argues, disagreement is never between “the rational and the irrational” but rather “between opposing rationalities.”

Ultimately, I suggest that, far from being something anyone needs to return to, universalism is already something we are committed to inasmuch as we have beliefs, regardless of the particular, local reasons we invoke to justify them. For it is in the very act of invoking reasons to justify a belief in the first place that we both glimpse the universal and realize that our reasons for holding our beliefs are not merely “our” reasons but in fact the right reasons. Nevertheless, the replacement of the universally true with the locally true is often thought to be a prerequisite for the recovery and/or preservation of non-Western beliefs, epistemologies, identities, and forms of social organization. While such efforts are grounded in the important desire for alternatives to Western capitalist modernity, we do no favor to our beliefs or the beliefs of others when we strip them of the universal implications they intrinsically contain. As Susan Haack has argued, the rejection of the universal is profoundly “cynical,” since if one gives up on the idea that one’s beliefs are true, then “one would be obliged to adopt an attitude of cynicism towards them, to think of justification always in covert scare quotes.”

If the universal is neither an impossibility nor an aspiration, it is also neither the cosmopolitan nor the global. To be sure, discussions of the universal in Latin Americanist thought (which have, of course, their own long and complex history) have tended to equate the universal with the cosmopolitan and the foreign.¹8 The frequently used terms “literatura universal” (universal literature) and “historia universal” (universal history) equate the universal with a kind of globality that is misleading. The argument of this book is not that the subject needs to be everywhere or everyone in order to be universal and make universal claims but rather that anyone anywhere who has a belief is already committed to its universality. Ángel Rama, for example, writes in The Lettered City (1984) of the ways that late nineteenth-century intellectuals sought to “reconcile the irresistible attractions of universalism with the maintenance of national traditions and the existing grid of social values.” Rama’s understanding of the “attractions of universalism” as automatically opposed to “the existing grid of social values” is telling, for it incorrectly assumes that those same “social values” are not themselves universal values. It is as if, Rama seems to suggest, one must achieve what he calls a “lofty perspective,” transcending one’s particularity, to think that our beliefs and values are not just true, given who we are, but rather true, regardless of who we are. However, the desire to maintain our social values in the first place is rooted not in their being ours but rather in our belief that they are the true values—hence the desire to preserve them. To think that cosmopolitanism is a necessary prerequisite for the universal is just the other side of the anti-universalist coin, since it means thinking that the truth of our beliefs depends on the subject position we occupy—hence the desire to occupy a vast, cosmopolitan one.

Nevertheless, the argument in John Beverley’s Latinamericanism after 9/11 (2011) is that the urgent task facing the Left in Latin America is developing a renewed anti-universalism. What is needed, argues Beverley, is to recover “for the discourse of the Left the space of cultural dehierarchization ceded to the market and to neoliberalism.”²0 Beverley’s timely book acknowledges that neoliberal ideology has achieved cultural dehierarchization more effectively than any Left project, including Latin Americanism, meaning that the core commitment of Latin Americanism seems to be “complicit with precisely that which we want to resist” (21). However, Beverley urges a return to, rather than a departure from, the recurring assumptions of Latin American thought that are the subject of this book. I question, on the contrary, whether “cultural dehierarchization” should have ever been the basis for a discourse of the Left and argue that now, more than ever, it has no place in any politics of the Left.

Beverley affirms the importance of thinking that “there is no one standard for truth,” so therefore “claims about truth are contextual: they have to do with how people construct different understandings of the world” (62). I argue that this implies a circularity, in which the only possible justification for our beliefs, since they are of “equal worth,” is that they happen to be ours. This carries with it a problem: if beliefs are of equal worth, then there is no reason to change them, and changing them begins to seem like an act of self-betrayal. Like Beverley, I believe that Latin America carries within it the hope for “an alternative future” (18). However, that future will not be reached when truths from Latin America are rendered just as good as any others and better only for us. Instead, an alternative future will be achieved when truths from Latin America are given a framework by Latin Americanism that allows them to be understood as contending with those of other ideologies rather than merely as markers of identitarian difference.

The arguments in The Limits of Identity build on the work of philosophers and theorists such as Paul Boghossian, Stanley Fish, and especially Walter Benn Michaels. Michaels’s work—especially Our America: Nativism, Modernism, and Pluralism (1995) and The Shape of the Signifier: 1967 to the End of History (2004)—deals primarily with the political and theoretical impasses of identity in the United States, but the implications of his arguments concerning identity and difference need not end there. The point of departure for the arguments in this book is what Abraham Acosta has recently identified as a “crisis of resistance” due to the fact that “predominant theories of Latin American culture have been and continue to be insufficiently conceived to account for the critical and heterogeneous realities of modernization in the region.” At the same time, this book contributes to a growing turn in the field defined in part by the pathbreaking work of Eugenio Di Stefano and Emilio Sauri, which holds that the theoretical commitment to the “different positions individual and collective subjects assume within society” produces a version of politics that “renders the structure of exploitation itself a secondary, if not altogether irrelevant concern.” Moreover, Di Stefano and Sauri argue that the commitment to the “primacy of the subject’s position” and the “emphasis on experience” in recent Latin American literary and cultural studies ultimately “functions to make the cause of that experience—capitalist economic relations— tangential at best, irrelevant at worst.”

Chapter 1 provides an account of the historical and ideological conditions that gave rise to anti-universalism and the commitment to identity in nineteenth-century Latin America. My main focus, however, is on Martí’s foundational essay, “Nuestra América,” which contains the logic of what became the dominant modes of Latin American cultural normativity in the twentieth century. Indeed, as Alberto Moreiras has argued, the essential preoccupation of Latin Americanism has been “preserving, no matter in how contradictory or tense [a] manner, an idea of Latin America as the repository of a cultural difference that would resist assimilation by Eurocentric modernity.” Even though “Nuestra América” famously repudiates biological race and champions what Martí calls “the universal identity of man,” it also prescribes a set of beliefs and practices that Martí insists should not be understood as better for everyone, but rather only better for Latin Americans. If the cornerstone of biological race-thinking is the idea that what we do is a function of who we are, Martí replaces that with the notion that what we do should be a reflection who we are. I argue that, far from offering a post-racial vision, Martí’s concept of culture reinstates the concept of race that he repudiates. Martí’s “Nuestra América” thus signals neither the end of race nor the emergence of post-racialism. Although most theoretical accounts of neo-racism, such as Étienne Balibar’s, insist that universalism and “the theme of hierarchy” are always present beneath the surface of neo-racisms, I argue that it is precisely the commitment to anti-universalism and the rejection of the hierarchical that enable the most pervasive forms of neo-racism. What is at stake is whether any anti-universalist cultural project can escape a dependence on biological race.

In chapter 2 I explore how José Enrique Rodó’s Ariel (1900) recognizes both the emancipatory power and the identitarian indifference of beliefs. Ariel was published at a time when positivist-influenced writing about Latin America’s social and political problems—such as César Zumeta’s Continente enfermo (1899)—saw the region as a sick body troubled by its physical features (the racialized bodies of its inhabitants or the deterministic nature of its natural environment). But instead of casting Latin America as defined by the instincts of racial others or governed by its physical reality, Rodó suggests that Latin America is in fact the heir to the best and highest ideals of Western civilization. The essence of Latin America, Rodó implies, is to be found in its ideals. However, inasmuch as one of Rodó’s aims was to establish and secure a distinctive regional identity, this creates a problem. I argue that this causes Ariel to reverse its commitment to the disembodied ideals that it is best known for advancing in favor of notions of materiality and the body that could secure difference in a way that beliefs and ideals never can. I close with a discussion of Rodolfo Kusch’s Indigenous and Popular Thinking in América (1970), a text that, albeit in different ways and on different terms, attempts to protect difference from disagreement.

Chapter 3 focuses on the emergence of anti-universalist accounts of what a text means. I read Jorge Luis Borges’s “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” (1939) as a story that, contrary to what is often said, underscores the universalism of textual meaning. In turn, “Pierre Menard” helps make clear what, beginning in the 1960s, many Latin American critics and theorists began trying to overcome—namely, the fact that what a text means has nothing to do with the reader’s identity or experience. This explains the identitarian stakes of a wide range of efforts to replace questions of meaning with descriptions of a text’s effects on readers. Indeed, as Roberto Fernández Retamar wrote in 1975, while the act of looking at the formal properties of a text or producing a “description of a literary work’s structures” is perhaps “interesting,” such analysis fails to deal with what he thinks matters.²7 For Fernández Retamar, what matters is a text’s “functional instrumentality,” which is really to say, its effects on readers.²8 I argue that what is at stake for Fernández Retamar and others is the desire to overcome meaning’s universality by imagining how the identity of the reader, rather than the intention of the author, is what matters about a text.

In chapter 4 I trace the rise, beginning in the 1980s, of the idea that the historical past in Latin America is something that can—and should—be remembered. In an analysis of texts ranging from Eduardo Galeano’s Memory of Fire (1982–1986) to Guillermo Bonfil Batalla’s México profundo (1987) and Carmen Boullosa’s Cielos de la tierra (1997), I explore how the Latin Americanist imperative to practice a given culture was replaced with the imperative to remember it. At the same time, there emerged an anti-universalist negation of historical truth that undermined the difference between knowledge and experience. Thus, I argue that this new account of the relationship between history and memory sought to make history a source for identitarian difference, which was a response to growing uncertainty about the persistence of difference in the face of neoliberal globalization. For example, if in Forjando patria (1916), one of the founding texts of Mexican indigenismo and revolutionary nationalism, Manuel Gamio could claim that “75 percent” of the population of Latin America was “composed of men of [. . .] indigenous language, and indigenous civilization,” in 2001 Néstor García Canclini argued that the “aesthetic taste” of Mexicans was overwhelmingly informed by U.S. television and film, which constituted 60 to 85 percent of all media consumption in the country.²9 Thus, by imagining difference in the past as memory, history could take up the identitarian work once performed by culture and beliefs in the present. I argue not only that the turn to memory did the work of culture but also that it offered a model of identitarian difference complicit with the growth of neoliberal global consumer and labor markets.

This book, however, is not primarily a history of identity and antiuniversalism in Latin American thought. There is already an impressive body of work that has taken on that task, and while there is perhaps more to be done, that is not the goal of this book.³0 Instead, The Limits of Identity makes an argument about Latin Americanism—namely, that although its origins can be located in an attempt to repudiate the universalization of a Eurocentric modernity, it ultimately established itself as a repudiation not of a bad universal but of universality writ large, thus becoming as hostile to true beliefs as it is to false ones. As such, Latin Americanism not only blunts the force of the very beliefs and values it set out to affirm but also implicates itself in many of the same discourses that it sought to repudiate.

In the coda I discuss one of the most recent interventions into Latin American literary and cultural studies, John Beverley’s Latinamericanism after 9/11. Beverley’s book is significant for the way that it both concedes the exhaustion of Latin Americanist ideologies and at the same time calls for a retrenchment in them. At the heart of what he proposes for a new Latin Americanism is a renewed commitment to identity and anti-universalism. However, I argue that just the opposite is needed, pointing toward the possibility of a new Latin Americanism, but one no longer concerned with identitarian difference qua difference, and no longer resting on anti-universalist grounds.


“The Limits of Identity...masterfully draws from the foundational authors of modern Latin American thought to re-think Latino-Americanism and to suggest a radical departure from the ‘constraints’ of identity politics.”
Cincinnati Romance Review

“[W]ith this project, Hatfield situates himself among some of the most exciting Latin Americanists in the U.S.”
Latin American Literary Review

[A]n ambitious and systematic effort to dismantle some of the predominant variations of identitarianism that feed the discursive apparatus of Latinamericanism.”

“A crucial study. It will emerge a fundamental text within Latin American studies and within the humanities at large. The book is beautifully written. It is witty and possesses something very rare within Latin American studies: style. The research is impeccable and rigorous.”
Brett Levinson, Professor and Chair of Comparative Literature, Binghamton University/SUNY, and author of The Ends of Literature: The Latin American Boom in the Neoliberal Marketplace and Market and Thought: Meditations on the Political and Biopolitical