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My Journey as a Literary Scholar: From Theory to Archives

Posted by on Monday, October 23, 2023 in Blog, Graduate Student, RPW Fellows.

André Ramos-Chacón is a Mending and Transforming Fellow from the Department of Spanish and Portuguese.

For five years, as an undergraduate student of literature in Peru, I was formed to understand, appropriate, and apply theory for my study of books. Though, arguably, I was being formed at the margins of the academic establishment —in a State University in Arequipa, the only one which offered literature as a career outside Lima, the capital— even there the reach of theory was massive and uncontested. I had to take six courses on theory, which ranged from Plato and Aristotle to the two Jacques: Lacan and Derrida. In contrast, I took few courses on literary historiography. Later, I’d come to realize that I ignored less of the existence of theorists and theories from France, the UK, and the northern hemisphere than of writers and works from my own tradition: Peru and Latin America.

In my fourth year I obtained a scholarship to study in Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú in Lima, one of the best in the country. I worked with Prof. José Antonio Rodríguez Garrido, a Ph.D. from Princeton, where he had worked with stars like Rolena Adorno, arguably the founder of Spanish-American colonial studies, and writer Ricardo Piglia. Prof. José Antonio, to whom I owe my love for colonial literature —brushed aside during my years in Arequipa— once told me, and it stayed with me since, that he did not enjoy to act like a conquistador on books. He did not wield academic weapons, a structuralist machete or postmodernist goggles, but listened without preconceptions to what a work had to say and then traced how it strung together with a universe of texts, people, and events.

Prof. José Antonio had been influenced by neohistoricism, but he developed his own method to create analytical frameworks from within texts. He did judge and value the principles of works, but he also made sure to truly understand foundations and networks from centuries ago. Whereas I had been taught, perhaps unconsciously, to do the opposite: to select a theory to approach a text, and to leap like a tiger at any of its wrongs and misfortunes (in content or form). Colonial literature offers an abundance of wrongs, —texts are irregular and display imperialism, racism, and sexism in variable degrees— but also language and systems oriented towards justice that are not easy to grasp because they are obsolete or no longer mainstream in philosophy and textual interpretation —at least in literary studies (for example, natural law). I realized that me and my peers were reading to judge but not to understand. Theory had made me an inquisitive reader, but it was also becoming a hindrance. I could see this in applications of postcolonial theory —developed mainly from the colonial experiences and textual traditions from India and Africa— to Latin American colonial texts. Theory enabled critical readings, but often insights turned out to be assumptions once confronted with historical and textual evidence.

Prof. José Antonio pointed me to Vanderbilt, where I cemented this approach to literature under the guidance of Prof. José Cárdenas Bunsen. What most amazed me about Prof. José was how different his research was with respect to other scholars in the field. While others offered new theoretical readings of consecrated —and thus super-analyzed— texts, he offered new texts and evidence from which to build new readings. Perhaps the best example is the documentation he found of the son of Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, which, employed strategically, allowed for an unprecedented interpretation of both the life and works of this canonical author. Prof. José inspired in me the use history for literary research, particularly in the downright way of visits to archives and collections, where one is forced to immerse in the vertiginous huddle of random sources rather than distilled and elaborated narratives. Archives provided an opportunity to interact with texts in unique ways, like the astronomer who finds lunar rocks after a class on the solar system, and forced me to widen my skillset from close reading and theoreticism to paleography and empiricism. Though I only began to practice archival work after my arrival to Vanderbilt, so far I have been able to discover its thrills and letdowns: its nature as high risk/high reward, particularly in a field whose texts and authors have been thoroughly studied.

I am now drawn to archives because they allow to test the accuracy or inaccuracy of other’s or my own theoretical elaborations. Moreover, they allow the creation of new theories sustained on new evidence, which, by itself, already widens and deepens the field in a way that’s not rivalled by the application of theory. Though it may seem that I reject theory, I do not. It is a necessary and rich foundation for the scholar. Yet, I created this theory/history contrast to highlight the opportunity and significance found in repositories and historical approaches to texts. In my experience as a critic, I have not perceived sufficient attention towards archives but an overreliance on literary theories (often based on a tradition but indistinctly and unproblematically applied to others). I have also perceived the fall of theorists from the public sphere and public humanities, and the rise of narrative-centered historians. For such reasons, I have decided on this path of literary research, which allows for both originality and rigorousness. And, most importantly, adventures —trips to remote archives, encounters with unique manuscripts, or even papers signed by your favorite author—, since archives remain inaccessible and mysterious despite laudable cataloguing and digitalization efforts.