Professor Doris Sommer
Dept. of Romance Languages and Literatures
Foundational Fictions: The National Romances of Latin America (1991) discovers an intimate, mutually constructive relationship between modern heterosexuality and patriotism. Freely chosen and productive passionate alliances seemed "natural" to defenders of laissez-faire, and were the basis for legitimating national independence where those alliances could prosper. And, conversely, the fate of the nation was so sublime a goal that it seemed the natural goad to making passionate alliances. In one country after another, including Brazil with its very peculiar history, the generation between 1850 and 1880 produced national novels that are still required reading in their respective countries. They are part of a civic education, where teenagers learn that passion and patriotism go together, that decent citizens make alliances across class, race, and regional lines in productive rebellion against colonial and corporatist practices. The book speculates generally on the mutual construction of marital love (a modern literary invention, to follow Foucault) and collective dreams of national community (to follow Anderson). Sex and nation are not separable, despite the narrow focus of other speculators on modernity. Together they draw readers into shared personal desires and public dreams of social coherence and economic prosperity.
One Master for Another: Populism as Patriarchal Rhetoric in Dominican Novels (1984) develops a theory of patriotic narrative in response to quandaries about the nature of populism. Historians and social scientists know that it is not exactly an ideology, or a movement, or a political position. But they don't say what it is. My reading of a range of novels that follow the nation-building period shows that populism is a culture, a set of symbolic relationships that translates national crises and projects into the language of family crises: the struggle of a legitimate husband/people to recover the wife/land from the usurper. The patriarchal culture operates left and right of political and ideological differences. Either way, it blocks fundamental change, by reducing the woman (along with other sectors of the non-active citizenry) to a prize, an object of desire and struggle, instead of imagining anyone but the masculine "pueblo" as an agent.
Proceed with Caution, when engaged by minority writing in the Americas (1999) notices signs of reluctance to belong to one coherent collectivity. Not everyone wants to be redeemed from the cultural differences that allegedly blocked national consolidations. The book expands our “toolbox” of rhetoric in a multicultural world. Classical rhetoric assumed that orator and listener shared the same culture and the same assumptions. The best rhetorician was the one who best manipulated the monoculture. Today, we cannot assume continuity, but should expect discontinuity. The difficulty in literary criticism (part of all educated readers' training) is that we don't yet expect it. We presume to be co-authors of what we read, intimates—or even experts—who exceed the inspired but confused writer in interpretive clarity. A range of rhetorical figures and tactics block these arrogant habits. They demote, or refuse complicity (or "slap and embrace" readers in Toni Morrison's phrase) to engage admiration and resist control. This range of possible techniques develops from readings of el Inca Garcilaso, Rigoberta Menchu, Toni Morrison, Cirilo Villaverde, and Mario Vargas Llosa, among others.
Bilingual Aesthetics: A New Sentimental Education, (forthcoming from Duke University Press in 2003), a sequel to Proceed with Caution, attends to code-switching as a specific kind of rhetorical gate-keeper. If you haven’t yet been wondering about the ways that bilingualism can improve a range of private and public moves—in aesthetics, politics, and philosophy (not to mention business and commerce)—let’s take some time out together. What if I said that an extra language, beyond a coordinating lingua franca, promotes personal development, fair procedure, and effective education, while one-way assimilation derails progress on all counts? Would you be curious about the arguments and perhaps willing to change your mind if bilingualism had seemed irrelevant or even damaging? I hope you are willing, and I offer this book as an invitation to consider the cultural conditions for fair and fulfilling contemporary life. This book is about added value, not about remediation. More than one language is a supplement, not a deficiency. It is a dangerous supplement to monolingualism, whether the addition amounts to two languages or to many. Bilingualism overloads mono systems; and multilingualism does it more. But in principle bi- and multilingualism make similar mischief with meaning. The underlying goal of thinking about these overloads as intellectual, artistic, and ethical enhancements will be to open public debates beyond the failing standard of monolingual assimilation. Throughout this book, I address the enhancements in the most theoretically sophisticated terms I can muster, but in plain language. Partly the gambit is to demonstrate that theory is practically second nature to bilinguals who normally abstract expression from meaning; and partly the range of refinements that follow from the “open sesame” of bilingual readings means to persuade some readers that bilingualism is intellectually advantageous. Others will know that already.
Bilingual Games (forthcoming in 2003 from Palgrave) is an edited collection of 20 essays by leading scholars on the aesthetics and politics of bilingualism.
Cultural Agency in the Americas (forthcoming from Duke University Press and Siglo XXI) is an edited collection of 23 essays by a range of leading and junior social scientists and humanists to explore the “Wiggle Room” (my title for the introduction) between the cracks of globalization.