Universidad de Buenos Aires/
Universidad Nacional de Lomas de Zamora
My aim in this paper is to contribute to the changes that have been taking place in philosophy of history and the historiographical profession, in a way that will go along with the struggle of the “Global South” to produce truly emancipatory, non-ethnocentric historiographies. In particular, I shall focus on one of the most recent topics to be questioned in the debate about “lower case history”: that of “historical distance” as a prerequisite of historical scholarship. In other words, my work will adopt a “Global South” perspective to tackle the imperative according to which a certain temporal gap between the historian and the past would be absolutely mandatory, in order to achieve an “objective” account of the latter.
With this aim in mind, I have organised my work in three sections. I will start by addressing the question of historical distance, following on what has been summarized above, and briefly introducing some recent developments of the debate on this topic. In the second section, I intend to question the binary opposition between closeness and distance, according to which we would be forced to choose one or the other before embarking in any study of the past. Instead, I will turn the focus to that site (or counter-site, as Foucault’s “heterotopias” suggest) that lies between both: halfway between what is close and what is distant, where we find the Borderlands/la Frontera. This notion belongs, of course, to chicana author Gloria Anzaldúa, who presents it when explaining the realities of mestizaje, the chicano experience of multiplicity, and her conflicting allegiances with heterogeneous worlds, notably in Borderlands/La Frontera and This bridge called my back. Finally, I shall conclude by suggesting some alternative approaches to our past, avoiding the traditional notion of historical distance and its ideal of detachment and objectivity. In our hybrid, postcolonial realities, holding on to the modern ideal of distance fails to acknowledge the multiplicity which makes us who we are – and who we want to be. Instead, we can rethink our perspective by adopting Anzaldúa’s idea of Borderlands, understood as the home of mestizaje, hybridity, and of enrichments born out of difference. As we shall see, these features are some of the keys to understanding the Borderlands as a fruitful location to think about the past and embark in new representations of it.
- Historical Distance / Historical Distances
One of the last presuppositions to fall prey of the debates on epistemology of history referred to above was that of “historical distance”. In its classic conception, which guided professional historical writing at its inception and still finds wide acceptance, the demand for “distance” can be found in sayings such as “Truth is the daughter of time”: that is, the precept according to which the historian must be temporally distant from her or his object of inquiry, in order to achieve a truly “objective” account of it. In this sense, distance is a metaphor, since it is used to refer not to something spatial, but to the gap that lies between the temporal existence of a historical event, and the time when its representation is produced. In the words of a critic:
“As commonly understood, historical distance refers to the growing clarity that comes with the passage of time” (Philips 11).
This maxim encompasses two main traits of the idea of distance: that it is temporal, and that it constitutes a mandatory epistemological prerequisite for the writing of history. There would exist an optimal remote point from the object of inquiry, which alone would suffice to ensure the writer’s objectivity – and, thus, produce a final result as close as possible to scientific truth. “Distance” is also regarded as referring strictly to the temporal realm, since it does not include cultural, geographical or linguistic detachment. In all, what is being said is that it would be impossible (or, in any case, extremely irresponsible) for a historian to undertake a serious study of events that are “too recent”, since mere chronological closeness would imply heavier investments on the part of the author with his or her research object.
Although it is not the aim of this essay to delve into the details of the recent debates about distance,[vi] some important criticisms are worth mentioning briefly, since this rule of conduct does not come without conflicts. First of all, it has been noted that there is much more than temporality to historical distance. If we understand it as the disengagement needed in order to produce a representation of the past which will be accepted as legitimate by the historiographical community, then we need to think which are the components of this detachment. Or, alternatively, are we to presume that whoever approaches a historical object will understand it with the same degree of “neutrality”, given an equal temporal distance? Authors such as Mark Salber Philips have come to notice that distance must be understood as something plastic, related not only to temporality but also to other spheres such as the formal structures of representation, affective claims and force, implications for action and, of course, modes of understanding and knowledge. Philips suggests thinking of distance as a range of affiliations that mediate our relationship with the past, a number of rhetorical effects that allow the historian to detach from or come closer to his/her object, according to his/her needs. In his view, we should not think of distance as prescriptive, nor merely as the fact of being “far away”, but rather as a whole spectrum of placements, from the closest to the farthest apart. Under this light, what we recognize as “closeness” would be considered as one way among others of relating to our object of study; a placement that is certainly not naive, as it stems from a number of aesthetic, political, affective and epistemological decisions on the part of the author.
As for the affirmation of (temporal) distance as an epistemological prerequisite, it is worth noting that this canonization has its own historical genesis, and its political and ontological load. In the past decades, the celebration of distance has been questioned by tendencies such as the “memory boom”[vii] and the “affective turn”, which have defended “closeness” for the same reasons that led their opponents to demand distance: a more thorough, reliable understanding of our past.[viii] Of course, it would be naïve to neglect the political implications of either positioning, and of the crucial role that the idea of distance has played in our way of understanding the study of the past – to the point of becoming a blind spot in historiography and epistemology of history. A number of factors depend on the outcome of these discussions: who can produce history, what kinds of objects are considered worth including in it, what is the relationship and feedback between past and present (supposing they are dissociable at all), how will the decisions on how we produce representations of the past impact on our present and our future. This is why, once we acknowledge the importance of producing new representations ensuing from postcolonial, “Global South” realities, we must take on the task of rethinking our inherited epistemologies, and creating new modes of looking at the past that will better serve our needs.
- Borderlands/La Frontera
In the light of these pending issues, and particularly in relation to the problem of historical distance, it is imperative to offer an alternative both to the defence of distance as an epistemological principle, and to the affirmation of closeness as privilege or ideal. If we are to produce new representations for our relational, dynamic and non-lineal existences, it may be fruitful to start thinking outside of that binary notion, and focus instead on those placements that lie between both extremes, questioning the binary itself.
As a contribution to this revision, in this paper I seek to move away from that traditional antagonism, and instead draw attention to a realm that, adopting Gloria Anzaldúa’s metaphor, I shall call “the Borderlands” or, in its Spanish denomination, “la Frontera”. In other words, my answer to the debate is not to defend distance as a necessity or closeness as a privilege, but rather to explore new perspectives that will better account for our “Global South” and its mestizo realities.[ix] In this sense, it is worth noting that although the Borderlands, like distance, are here understood primarily as metaphors, they are no less concrete or fruitful when undertaking a modification of our material present – and futures – through these representations of the past. With these clarifications in mind, I would like to dedicate this section to briefly sketch the idea of Borderlands/Frontera as presented in Anzaldúa’s work, before entering more specifically in its analysis as a tool for the writing of histories.[x]
“The Borderland”, like distance, is a metaphor that lends itself to methodological, political, ethical and affective readings. The Borderland indicates at once time and space – or, rather, counter-site, if we are to follow Foucault’s idea of “heterotopia”. In his 1986 article “Of other spaces”, Michel Foucault claims that while the obsession in the 19th Century was history, in the 20th Century it is space – and it is not by mere chance that we find ourselves discussing history (one could hardly imagine anything more “temporal” than history) through the spatial metaphor of distance. By way of this obsession with space, Foucault finds himself
“in the epoch of simultaneity: we are in the epoch of juxtaposition, the epoch of the near and far, of the side-by-side, of the dispersed” (22).
The author defines “heterotopia” as
“a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted” (24).
I am interested in making use of such a notion of “heterotopia” when describing la Frontera due to this ambivalence, whereby a single figure can be used at once to reproduce and to contest or reject a given site: the Borderlands are at once a real site and a utopia, the conjoint, celebratory existence of diversity, and a questioning of the differentiation itself as artificial.[xi] In a similar vein, Foucault himself lists as one of the principles of heterotopias that it must be
“capable of juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible” (24).
This brings us to that exemplar of heterotopia we have called “La Frontera”, as presented by Gloria Anzaldúa in her already classic work Borderlands/La Frontera (1987). The author conceives “La Frontera” both as a metaphor and as a concrete geographical location – a double meaning that reminds us, yet again, of the concept of heterotopia. In concrete terms, the delimitation of spaces (for example, through the establishment of a national frontier) is always artificial, in that it interrupts something that had been continuous until then. It is in this act of fragmentation that the Borderland and its inhabitants emerge:
“A borderland is a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary. It is in a constant state of transition. The prohibited and forbidden are its inhabitants. (…) those who cross over, pass over, or go through the confines of the ‘normal’” (3).
This artificial division and the emergence of a hybrid at its core, are at once a geographical phenomenon, and a metaphor that the author uses to speak about non-normative identities, hardly explainable through those categories that she calls “Western”. Life in these flexible and unclassifiable sites (or, rather, counter-sites) gives birth to what Anzaldúa calls “a new mestiza consciousness”, that is: the consciousness of those who instead of searching purity on either side of the frontier (on one side of the norm or the other), choose to live in the Borderlands, and to cultivate that ambiguity. The modern illusion of purity has been dissolved into a rich mestizaje, which in turn ceases to appear as an obstacle that must be overcome, but rather emerges as the perfect counter-site for the blooming of contradictions, hybrids, and new possibilities.[xii] In this site, new, unprecedented languages are bred, which belong to all and to none of the places to which they relate: it is no less than the “powerful, infidel heteroglossia” envisioned by Donna Haraway (181). In the midst of this explosion of diversity, the possibilities multiply for performative constructions of new realities, opening the field for untrodden narratives, affects, politics and methodologies.[xiii]
- Making history in the generosity of the Borderlands
I would like to suggest that this notion of the Borderlands as heterotopia, as the site of rewarding encounters with difference, can be useful when approaching the problem of historical distance. As seen above, there is a traditional notion of historiography according to which historical distance would be possible, necessary, and one of the final aims of historical knowledge seeking objectivity. On the other hand, a number of criticisms have emerged against this approach. They claim that distance is little more than an illusion, veiling a whole range of commitments under the guise of objectivity. It is my aim to defend, as an alternative to the arrogance of (temporal) historical distance and the narcissism of closeness (be it memorial, affective, or otherwise), the generosity of the Borderlands as a counter-site from which histories can be produced, reproduced and transformed.
In other words, once we understand, as seen with Philips, that such alleged historical distance is actually informed by numerous ethical, political, aesthetic and epistemological commitments, we can hardly sustain the naïve idea that a mere chronological gap will bring us an objective, “pure” and apolitical representation. Having said this, we can push forward our inquiry and wonder: apart from being impossible, would purity and objectivity be desirable? Are they ideals we should strive for?
Anzaldúa offers her own analysis of what lies behind this plead for “distance” as purity and objectivity:
“In trying to become ‘objective’, Western culture made ‘objects’ of things and people when it distanced itself from them, thereby losing ‘touch’ with them. This dichotomy is the root of all violence”.
Reality has been
“split into two functions, (…) Thus people who inhabit both realities are forced to live in the interface between the two, forced to become adept at switching modes. Such is the case with the india and the mestiza” (Anzaldúa, Borderlands 37).
In other words: rather than promoting, as Anzaldúa does, hybrid and mestizo existences, our culture demands that we place ourselves on either side of the frontier (black or white, white or aboriginal, man or woman, and so on). In the case of historical writings we could take as an example, on the one hand, the prerequisite of distance and “objectivity” for any historiography that wishes to be regarded as “professional”, and, on the other, closeness, emotional commitment and the everyday approach expected from genres such as autobiography or memoirs. Each of these styles entails its own rules of purity in aesthetic style, conventions, and ways of representing the past. Anzaldúa is extremely critical of this kind of categorical distinctions:
“They convince us that we must cultivate art for art’s sake. (…) Put frames and metaframes around the writing. Achieve distance in order to win the coveted title ‘literary writer’ or ‘professional writer’. Above all do not be simple, direct, or immediate” (Anzaldúa, “Speaking…” 167).
The author offers her own alternative to these resources through her idea of Borderland writing, with which she seeks to redeem and defend the mestiza condition, the coexistence of differences as illuminating, as a process leading to a whole which is more than the parts that constitute it. Along the line of Foucault’s heterotopias, writing from the Borderlands will allow for and encourage the juxtaposition of diverse, often contradictory realities: worlds at once native and colonized, empowered and oppressed, Southern and Northern. These are the realities that can hardly begin to be expressed by traditional historiographical structures, conveyed in the ideal of objective, distant representations of a past that “is there to be told” and described in lineal, coherent terms. Instead, we find ourselves in this effectively enacted utopia, which is at once, and inseparably a place (perhaps a site we are representing through our historical report) and a metaphor – maybe one about possible futures.
Anzaldúa’s defence of the mestiza condition, of course, is not only referred to people, but also, among other things, to modes of writing. Against the pretence of a “pure” writing, the author declares:
“They lied; there is no separation between life and writing. (…) The danger is in being too universal and humanitarian and invoking the eternal to the sacrifice of the particular and the feminine and the specific historical moment” (Anzaldúa, “Speaking…” 170).
Will we ever be able to sustain again an ideal of distant, detached and clean-cut accounts of the past, after we become aware of its costs, and once this mestiza conscience has begun to emerge? Perhaps it is time to come up with new heuristics, which will allow for the inclusion of what diverse subjects throughout time and space have understood as “history”[xiv] – to the point of redefining “history” itself. Once we engage in this path, we will encounter not only a richer account of realities present and past, but also (accompanying these new writings, as well as stemming from them) new languages, full of life and potential (Anzaldúa, Borderlands 80).
The proliferation of modes of writing (and of distance) leaves space to incorporate people and experiences that were not included in more traditional representations: in this way, the spheres of individual subjects and of modes of representation feed on each other, resulting in richer, more empowering (hi)stories. The inhabitants of the Borderlands, those unintelligible from the (distant) perspective of traditional historiographies, are now visible: the prohibited, the forbidden, those who refuse to choose one side or the other of the “normal”, and instead prefer to dwell in the ambiguous “in between”. As theorist Shari Stone-Mediatore notices, Anzaldúa’s metaphors
“help us to appreciate qualities of her borderlands existence that were always real but that were not consciously noticed or publicly acknowledged due to the limitations of tradition-given narrative frameworks” (Stone-Mediatore 145).
Moving slightly away from this statement, I would add yet another distinctive trait of projects such as Anzaldúa’s. What Stone-Mediatore calls “tradition-given frameworks” could, eventually, lend themselves for the representation of those qualities, and the subjects presenting them – such was the case with the early inclusion of new “heroic figures” into the mainstream accounts of the past, and the wide acceptance of events such as “black history” or “pride” celebrations. On the other hand, the “borderlands existences” we are interested in here, such as the ones described by Anzaldúa in her highly autobiographical writings, are not only “acknowledged”, but also (as heterotopias) simultaneously reproduced, contested and inverted in the Borderland sites from which the author addresses the past.
Postcolonial theory, feminisms of colour, queer programs (among others) have taught us to what extent our representations of the past would benefit from an approach that accepts contradictions, plurality of voices (even cacophonic ones), and ambiguity. By this I mean not only a broadening of the subjects allowed to contribute their own representations of the past, but also of the kinds of representations that can be produced, and the objects of inquiry approached by history. As a result, we will have an ever growing plurality of (hi)stories that will eventually tend to cover the whole spectrum of distances, whilst avoiding the temptation of turning this tendency into an aim –that is, keeping aware of the dangers of universalist approaches, as Anzaldúa herself, along with many postcolonial theorists, have warned us.
Under this light, distance is now understood not as a fixed place in which specialists would situate themselves far away and unattached from their objects, but as an ever relative and multivocal placement. We are no longer dealing with a binary opposition (near/far), but rather with a continuum, a relational placement which varies depending on a manifold set of investments. In the Borderlands, “distance” thus understood ceases to be an ideal, and emerges as a strategy, an engaged positioning that determines and is determined by the kinds of relation that we are going to establish with our past, and the kinds of presents and futures that we wish to build with it.
Abelove, Henry. “The queering of Lesbian/Gay history”. Radical History Review 62 (Spring 1995): 44-57.
Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1987.
Anzaldúa, Gloria. “Speaking in Tongues”. This bridge called my back. Eds. Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa. New York: Kitchen Table, 1981. 165-174.
Foucault, Michel. “Of other spaces”. Diacritics 16. 1 (Spring 1986): 22-27.
Hall, Stuart. “The Question of Cultural Identity”. Modernity: An Introduction to Modern Societies. Eds. Stuart Hall et al. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996. 596-632.
Haraway, Donna. “A cyborg Manifesto”. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991. 149-181.
Jenkins, Keith. “Introduction: on being open about our closures”. The Postmodern History Reader, Ed. Keith Jenkins. London: Routledge, 1997. 1-30.
Moraga, Cherrie and Anzaldúa, Gloria (eds.). This bridge called my back. New York: Kitchen Table, 1981.
Pérez, Moira. “We Don’t Need Another Hero: Queering Representations of Dissident Sexualities from the Recent Argentine Past”. Historia da Historiografia 16 (december 2014): 203-216.
Philips, Mark Salber. “Rethinking historical distance”. History and Theory 50. 4 (December 2011): 11-23.
Stone-Mediatore, Shari. “Storytelling and Global Politics”. Reading across Borders. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. 125-159.
Winter, Jay. “The Generation of Memory: Reflections on the ‘Memory Boom’ in Contemporary Historical Studies”. Canadian Military History 10. 3 (2001): 57-66.
[ii] By “new identities” I do not refer, of course, to individuals or communities that did not exist before and emerged in the 20th-Century, but rather to people or groups that towards mid-Century started to gain active conscience of their place in the social structure, and their possibilities to have an impact on it. As Stuart Hall notes: “Increasingly, the political landscapes of the modern world are fractured in this way by competing and dislocating identifications – arising, e specially, from the erosion of the ‘master identity’ of class and the emerging identities belonging to the new political ground defined by the new social movements: feminism, black struggles, national liberation, anti-nuclear, and ecological movements” (Hall 601).
[iii] The account I present here of some changes in historiography is, of course, extremely succinct and it inevitably simplifies a manifold process. For a more detailed account of the idea of “traditional history” and its changes throughout the 20th-Century, see Pérez 2014.
[iv] I am using the expression “Global South” to refer to what other authors have called “Third World”, “the subaltern”, “the oppressed”, among others. All of these terms entail their own difficulties, as does the one I have chosen to adopt – which is why throughout my work I will use it critically, as shown by the use of quotation marks. However, I consider that “Global South” manages to convey the idea of subalternity while not circumscribing it to a fixed, discrete area. It designates a flexible, relational and dynamic possibility that affects us globally. In this sense, “South” is less a geographical location than a metaphor, just like the other terms that guide this paper: “distance” and “Borderlands”. On the relationship between “Global South” and “Borderlands” see note no. 9, below.
[v] An interesting recount of these transformations in relation to a subject traditionally excluded from historiography can be found in Henry Abelove’s narration of his experience confronting generational differences between his own investments in so-called “gay and lesbian” history and his students’ preference for “queer” alternatives. According to the latter, “gay and lesbian” history (including Abelove’s own contributions to it) had retained traditional notions such as that of agency and action, only adding to them a recurrent trope of marginalization, while not bringing any substantial changes in the profession’s methodological and philosophical premises. “Queer” histories, on the other hand, would have to undertake more profound questionings of the historiographical profession, not only regarding its subject matters, but also in its ways of understanding what a representation of the past actually is.
[vi] For a thorough analysis on the question of distance and some examples of the debate, see History and Theory: Theme Issue no. 50: “Historical Distance: Reflections on a Metaphor”, December 2011.
[vii] A detailed analysis of the idea of “memory boom” can be found in Winter’s “The Generation of Memory: Reflections on the ‘Memory Boom’ in Contemporary Historical Studies”.
[viii] Philips himself offers a brief review of this other side of the debate: “the association of distancing with intellectual clarity needs to be put in context with an accompanying desire for other kinds of relation to the past. Since the late eighteenth century at least, Europeans have seen some form of distancing as bound up with historical knowledge. Yet the same condition of estrangement also produces a strong counter-current, encouraging a widespread desire to recapture a feeling of historical intimacy and connected tradition.” The assumption, in this case, would be “that a genuine encounter with the past must trace a path from initial recognition of alterity to some form of insight and comprehension” (Philips 12).
[ix] It could be said that “the Borderlands” and the “Global South” are two images of one same object, and that they should be approached in their mutual relationship. While “Global South” expresses the convergence of oppressions, hierarchies and global-scale exploitation, Anzaldúa’s metaphor shows the strenght and potential locked within that same site, once we accept its complexities and create new languages/politics to express them. I would like to thank an anonymous reviewer for the Journal, who raised the issue of the relationship between the two concepts when reading my essay.
[x] Although my research focuses on the possibilities of producing representations of the past that could prove fruitful for experiences in the “Global South”, it is my belief that the alternative writings of history can be of use to all collectives, not as a replacement of the so-called “normal” or “traditional” history, but as new perspectives to feed an ever-growing multiplicity of voices.
[xi] It may be worth noting that Foucault quotes as examples of heterotopia two historiographically charged sites: libraries and museums.
[xii] “The borders and walls that are supposed to keep the undesirable ideas out are entrenched habits and patterns of behavior; these habits and patterns are the enemy within. Rigidity means death. Only by remaining flexible is she able to stretch the psyche horizontally and vertically. La mestiza constantly has to shift out of habitual formations; from convergent thinking, analytical reasoning that tends to use rationality to move toward a single goal (a Western mode), to divergent thinking, characterized by movement away from set patterns and goals and toward a more whole perspective, one that includes rather than excludes. The new mestiza copes by developing a tolerance for contradictions, a tolerance for ambiguity.”. “Not only does she sustain contradictions, she turns the ambivalence into something else.” (Anzaldúa, Borderlands 79).
[xiii] A reviewer for this Journal has rightly pointed at the difficulties of thinking the Borderlands as a site of empowerment and freedom in our current context. Although both Anzaldúa and my own appropriation of her work present La Frontera as a metaphor, it must also be said that a responsible and situated theory should take into account the concrete ramifications of the concepts and images it chooses to work with. In this case, it is crucial to note the ever-growing violences and exclusions that operate in the Borderlands today, which translate as migratory restrictions, maquilas and enslaved work, deportations, and technologies of biopower and control. If we are to adopt Anzaldúa’s metaphor, we must think it not as the naive celebration of an encounter which is not taking place (if it ever did), but as a counter-site of resistance and creativity.
[xiv] Philips reminds us of the need for a heuristics “as ecumenical as possible if it is to avoid re-inscribing received ideas of distance” and advocates for “inclusiveness with respect to the myriad forms and practices that have served the purposes of historical representation over the centuries”, while warning us that “This is not to suggest that historians of historiography should renounce critical judgments in their readings of particular texts or schools” (17).