How did Brazil manage to build a fighting force in the nineteenth century to defend its borders and police its population? How did the Brazilian elite articulate a campaign to reform an army composed of impressed criminals, vagabonds, and the unprotected poor in the wake of the army's less than glorious record in the Paraguayan War (1864-70)? How did politicians, officers, and military boosters reshape the army and, in turn, notions of the Brazilian nation through implementing conscription in the early twentieth century? Peter M. Beattie addresses these and many other questions related to the consolidation of a modern army in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. In doing so, he challenges students of Brazilian history to rethink the relationship of the armed forces to the process of nation building.
GILBERT M. JOSEPH (ed.): Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001.
Originating from an homenagem to Brazilian historian Emilia Viotti da Costa, this volume is primarily a work of historiography in which the contributors - her former graduate students and colleagues at Yale - call for a re-politicization of historical research on Latin America in a "post-revolutionary age." The authors seek a renewed historical focus on the political arena following a decade in which research has concentrated more often on cultural studies and social history. Moreover, the contributors insist that such historical research need have an overtly political purpose, more specifically a radical purpose, as they face an era in which most radical scholars have been dispirited. Historiographical chapters by Gilbert Joseph, Steve Stern, and Viotti da Costa examine "The Politics of Writing Latin American History" while Florencia Mallon analyzes the role of the historian (including her political role) in testimonial and ethnographic history. Other authors discuss "historical narratives and memory, class, race, sexuality or gender" in the context of research on Brazilian or Jamaican slavery, revolutionary nationalism in Jamaica, U.S. copper mining in Chile, or the Chilean agrarian reform.
Running through the volume are several intellectual/political concerns, including: the future of subaltern studies in an age of neoliberal triumphalism; structuralist interpretations of historical change versus those emphasizing agency; the importance of elite versus subaltern activity; and the role of postmodernism in contemporary historical interpretation.
Reading this collection through the eyes of a political scientist, I was once again struck by my own discipline's contrasting perspectives on the value or possibility of scholarly objectivity. While the very name of my discipline, political science, privileges objectivity and ideological neutrality, historians - including some represented here - frequently dismiss those qualities as unattainable and, to some degree, undesirable. While political scientists - self-declared empiricists - favor testable hypotheses with verifiable and replicable results, historians - strongly influenced by postmodernism - often insist that understanding of the truth is invariably subjective, influenced in great part by the scholar's own perspectives. Barbara Weinstein's highly insightful essay comparing the importance of subaltern agency versus structure or hegemony in the emancipation of Brazilian slaves, wryly asks:
Why not just endorse the politically satisfying scenario of slaves acting as agents of their own liberation in the face of stubborn resistance from reactionary slavocrats? After all, we are living in an intellectual age when few historians would regard themselves as engaging in scientific inquiry or in discovering something we could call objective truth. So why should I bother with this argument [crediting structural and other forces] unless it has some significant interpretive value? (p. 93, italics added)
To be sure, her exquisitely balanced essay rejects ideologically driven historical research which selectively seeks data to confirm the author's pre-existing position. And Steve Stern's opening essay dismisses "pseudo-scholarship - the marshaling and twisting of apparent research to suit a particular line or agenda" (p. 33). Yet, in seeing their work as forms of solidarity with the masses, many historians have done just that. Florencia Mallon notes that postmodern scholar John Beverly only accepts the legitimacy of testimonial literature if it is embedded in "resistance movements, guerrilla struggles, peoples' struggles in the Third World." In Beverly's words, the author and subject must establish "a sense of sisterhood and mutuality in the struggle against a common system of oppression." Following the apparent triumph of capitalism, globalization and neoliberalism in recent decades, he laments, "detached from its [revolutionary] contexts," the genre loses "its special aesthetic and ideological power" (p. 316).
To a degree, I would argue that historians are simply more self-aware and intellectually honest when they question the possibility of completely, or nearly completely, objective and non-ideological social science research. Even the most empirical, quantitatively rigorous research is shaped by the topic that the scholar chooses to investigate, the questions that he chooses to ask, the methodology that he employs, indeed, even the disciplinary subfield in which he had originally chosen to work. Do their "objective" research findings fully explain why political scientists specializing in Latin America are decidedly to the left of their disciplinary colleagues? Or, might their geographical choice of research area, particularly among those who entered the field from the 1960s into the early 1980s, have been influenced by their previous ideological predispositions? Speaking as an academic who, while still in my last years of high school, was first motivated to study Latin America by the film Viva Zapata and the triumph of the Cuban revolution, I certainly did not enter my discipline ideologically neutered.
But, it is one thing to admit the impossibility of total objectivity, and yet another to dismiss objectivity entirely and to consider historical scholarship as a form of scholarly political propaganda. Ethical and epistemological issues aside, I question whether openly declared or self-evident propaganda is likely to convince the reader who is not already converted. I recently heard a presentation by a young political scientist whose field research confirmed many of her original hypotheses regarding the pernicious effects of neoliberalism on Peruvian peasant communities, but contradicted others. Similarly, while her findings supported many of her expectations grounded in feminist theory, they also refuted others. Audience members who were of different ideological bents than her found her arguments far more convincing than had her work been an unmitigated, clarion call for radical change.
Thus, while I find no fault with this volume's stress on progressive political commitment, I am distressed by Weinstein's observation that "few historians would regard themselves as engaging in scientific inquiry or in discovering something we could call objective truth," and by quotations from John Beverly and other postmodern scholars that question the value or possibility of objectivity. Too often in the past, propagandistic, leftist scholarship looked past shortcomings and crippling strategic errors of the Cuban, Nicaraguan and Chilean revolutionary governments, ultimately ill-serving those regimes. A scholar who confines himself to studying non-refutable hypotheses, supporting his own political leanings, learns little that is new.
|Howard Handelman||University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee|
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