In 1940, Cuban ethnographer Fernando Ortiz coined the concept of “transculturation” for the sphere of anthropological research. His purpose was to explain the different stages and results of cultural contact among people brought together by European Colonial expansion into the Caribbean. Forty years later, when Uruguayan critic Ángel Rama applied the concept to Latin American literature, it became the core of a vast field of inquiry and debate, with a wide impact on the humanities and social sciences. Beyond the seminal work of Ortiz and Rama, this article covers numerous critical applications of the concept, metacritical approaches, and the production of alternative theoretical tools that challenge or complement the concept of “transculturation.”
The concept of “transculturation” appears for the first time in Ortiz 1995 (originally published in 1940), as a contribution to the study of Cuba and to the general field of Social Sciences. It can be read as an epistemological stand advancing the understanding of Latin America through Latin-American theoretical tools. Although Ortiz’s concept was adopted very early on by Venezuelan writer Mariano Picón Salas (in Picón Salas 1965), it remained rather dormant until Uruguayan critic Ángel Rama re-elaborated that notion in Rama 1982. Rama’s particular elaboration of the concept attempts to explain the way in which some Latin American authors incorporate diverse elements in their work of popular, rural, and indigenous cultures—words and grammatical structures, for instance—while, at the same time, adopting and adapting the literary techniques from the European and US literary avant-gardes. Larsen 1990 provides an early criticism to Rama’s theory, suggesting it entails a form of hegemonic aesthetic for Latin America’s peripheral Modernity. Cornejo Polar 1994 called into question both Ortiz’s and Rama’s articulations of the concept. Drawing from his own research, dating back to the 1970s, the author stated that “heterogeneity” would be the proper alternative to a conceptualization that is otherwise reminiscent of the problematic notion of assimilation. Cornejo Polar thus emphasizes the contradictory and conflictive nature of Latin American literature and culture, instead of what he sees as an illusion of harmonic synthesis. Sobrevilla 2001 offers a useful overview of the theoretical web surrounding Ortiz and Rama. Kraniauskas 2000 and Moreiras 2001 offer some of the most sophisticated approaches to the ideology of transculturation, suggesting that it responds to anxieties about Latin America’s uneven modernity. The concept of “transculturation” is part of a heated debate within postcolonial and Latin American studies, intersecting with other concepts of cross-cultural exchange such as Mestizaje, (Cosmic Race) Anthropophagy, Contact Zones, Hybridity, Heterogeneity, Motley Society, Border Thinking, Créolité, and Poetics of Relation, among others discussed in this article.
Cornejo Polar, Antonio. “Mestizaje, transculturación, heterogeneidad.” Revista de Crítica Literaria Latinoamericana 40 (1994): 368–371.
While Ortíz emphasizes that transculturation has a cultural as well as material dimension (sugar and tobacco are not only metaphors, but also indicate socioeconomic relations), Cornejo Polar points to the traces of a colonial power relation reproduced not only through the literary representation but also in terms of social class and ethnic positioning: who wields authorship, who publishes, and who is or is not able to consume literature.
Kraniauskas, John. “Hybridity in a Transnational Frame: Latin-Americanist and Postcolonial Perspectives on Cultural Studies.” Nepantla: Views from South 1.1 (2000): 111–137.
This essay provides a unique reading of Rama’s and García Canclini’s critical project in light of larger discussions of Subaltern and Post-Colonial Studies. Kraniauskas explains that Rama’s project is “concerned with reflecting on the processes by which historical memory is sedimented into contemporary cultural forms . . . in ways that undermine ‘civilizing’ ideologemes of development” (p. 113).
Larsen, Neil. Modernism and Hegemony. Critique of Aesthetic Agencies. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1990.
In a chapter entitled “Magical Realism Revised: From Transubstantiation to Transculturation,” Larsen offers one of the first criticisms to Rama’s concept. He states that “transculturation” entails a form of hegemonic aesthetic for Latin America’s peripheral Modernity. This reflection is also important in that it brings forth the connections between the discourse of transculturation and populism.
Moreiras, Alberto. The Exhaustion of Difference: The Politics of Latin American Cultural Studies. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001.
Moreiras explains that transculturation is not a natural sociocultural phenomenon, but an ideologically marked project. It is “a war machine, feeding on cultural difference, whose principal function is the reduction of the possibility of radical cultural heterogeneity” (pp. 188, 195–196).
Ortiz, Fernando. Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995.
Published for the first time in 1940, this book launches the neologism of “transculturation” to the critical arena. The concept is defined in the second part of the book, in a chapter entitled “The Social Phenomenon of ‘Transculturation’ and Its Importance in Cuba.”
Picón Salas, Mariano. De la conquista a la independencia: Tres siglos de historia cultural hispanoamericana. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1965.
First published in 1944, this is one of the first applications of Ortiz’s concept. The fourth chapter of the book, “From European to Mestizo. The First Forms of Transculturation,” describes the development of a criollo culture in 16th-century Latin America.
Rama, Ángel. Transculturación narrativa en América Latina. Mexico City: Siglo XXI, 1982.
This is the first application of Ortiz’s concept to the field of literary studies. The author analyzes the ways in which Latin American writers preserve the particularities of “original” popular cultures while employing the aesthetic resources of North American and European avant-gardes.
Sobrevilla, David. “Transculturacion y Heterogeneidad: Avatares de dos categorías literarias en América Latina.” Revista de Critica Literaria Latinoamericana 27.54 (2001): 21–33.
This article offers a detailed commentary of Ortiz’s and Rama’s concepts. It also provides a good background to understand the historicity of these concepts and the way they connect with the larger issues of literary studies in Latin American.
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