Wilfried Raussert, Giselle Liza Anatol, Sebastian Thies, Sarah Corona Berkin, and José Carlos Lozano, eds., The Routledge Handbook to the Culture and Media of the Americas (Abingdon: Routledge, 2020), 515 pp. Routledge Handbooks on Inter-American Perspectives 3.
Inter-American Studies have increasingly gained ground in academia, not least due to a general acknowledgement of the multiple interdependencies between American hemispheres. Yet, the detailed exploration of the manifold political, economic, and sociocultural entanglements is still a desideratum. Granted, an interdisciplinary dialogue in this field has already been adding a number of important contributions to the mission of drafting a perspective that takes into account the Americas as a new field of inquiry, and has brought forth substantial insight into the intricate confluences between the two hemispheres. Yet, a systematic mapping, which consequently addresses the specific and at the same time overlapping and mutually corresponding processes of societal and cultural transformation in the Americas, has only just begun. The three Routledge Handbooks on “Inter-American Perspectives” set out to contribute a significant part to this mapping in their endeavor “to provide the frame and the tools needed for a critical rethinking of the hemispheric space of entanglements in the Americas as a new perspective in area studies” (2). I. e., apart from identifying the various dimensions of social, economic, political, and cultural exchange, conflict and confluence, the handbooks also aim at sketching Inter-American Studies as an alternative and innovative way of conceptualizing the Americas.
In the general introduction to the third handbook on “Inter-American Perspectives,” The Routledge Handbook to the Culture and Media of the Americas, this approach of both re-valuating the Americas in regional and epistemological terms is spread out in a gesture that emphasizes both the necessity of a multi-disciplinary approach to achieve this goal and the productivity of a multi-perspectival view which does not run the risk of homogenization and hegemonization (1). In and through “interdisciplinary and interregional editorial committees” (3), this diversity of perspectives was put into practice in the process of selecting and compiling articles, and, at the same time, necessary for the project of “unthink(ing) concepts in an Inter-American perspective” (3). Consequently, the readers of the handbook are provided with 45 co-written entries on a range of diverse aspects that can all be related to the overall theme, arranged in two different parts (“Part I: Literature and music in the Americas,” 23 entries; “Part II: Media and visual cultures,” 22 entries), ranging from “Dance” to “Magical realism and the fantastic” and “Travel writing” in Part I and from “Comics” to “Journalism” and “Photography” in Part II. This subdivision follows an understanding of media as including the channels, actors, and material means of communication (275). Accordingly, the second section of the volume, particularly focusing on different forms and formats of visual cultures, but also containing entries on the media industries and related issues such as “Intellectual property,” deals with the technological and/or institutional dimensions as well as the individual and collective agents involved in the production, dissemination, and reception of forms of cultural expression.
Within the two subdivisions, entries are listed in an alphabetical order, readers are explicitly invited to pick and choose one entry and start from there, being guided either by their own preferences or through a system of references to the other handbooks and to other entries in handbook no. 3. I took the advice to follow my research and learning interest, and was indeed absorbed into the handbook right away, jumping, after my first read, to an entry that I considered to be related. The third entry I read followed this path, too, and picked up on a number of aspects already touched upon in the first two entries, thus adding to a broader picture of the issue being dealt with. By navigating through the volume this way, thematic and/or conceptual clusters emerge as one reads, and further support in finding one’s way through the volume is provided by a very helpful index. This system of non-systematic self-guidance works very well. And it does so, not least because all entries are structured in a similar way, focusing both on the specificities of the item discussed and—in their middle parts—on the dimensions of entanglements by adopting on a distinctly Inter-American perspective.
Following this pre-set structure, the entries shed light on different concepts, cultural practices, and the formation and transformation of the specific environments in which they emerge. Through their integrating and comparative approach, they confront the taken-for-grantedness of some major narratives of sociocultural phenomena and developments, which had, so long, been told from either a Northern or a Southern perspective. Thus reading “through” the handbook, paving one’s way through a range of illuminating insights in a “flaneur-like cruising from one entry to the other” (4), one not only learns about new phenomena and facets of Inter-American cultures through expert authors, the collaboration of whom is clearly visible in the individual contributions; one is also provided with alternative ways of conceptualizing ideas and issues in a highly productive way. In that sense, then, the handbook, though certainly not covering all aspects that one could think of, manages to envision the Americas from a different perspective indeed. The endeavor of mapping—which, as a cultural practice, is also critically reflected on in the handbook not least through its distinctly dialogic and multi-perspectival approach—is at the same time an endeavor of cognitive, or epistemological, re-mapping. For instance, Miriam Brandel and Luz Angélica Kirschner’s entry about “Migration literature” starts from the assumption that “one of the common literatures of the Americas is, in fact, im/migrant literature” (147), which, as a new default, sets the ground for the Inter-American perspective in which the narrative of the transgression of national literatures through migration is replaced by the notion of “multidirectional flows” (154) that have defined the literary histories of the Americas from the very start. Anne M. Martínez’s entry on “Borders” opens up a debate on the formation and transformation of border discourse by highlighting its Inter-American dimension articulated in “entangled stories (which) have been unevenly developed in the construction of narratives of the border, and its power and meaning” (38); the entry on “Protest music” by María del Carmen de la Peza and Michael Stewart Foley productively widens the understanding of protest music usually associated with White and male protagonists as singer-songwriter figures by including a diversity of Latin American musicians in the history of this genre in the Americas (196-97), while David González Hernández approaches “Media consumption” through Latin American media and Cultural Studies, opening up a whole array of theoretical and conceptual resources for the analysis and description of the American media landscape. While there is certainly no room to discuss every entry in this review, these examples should suffice to argue that the integration of scholarship and its approaches from all parts of the Americas, based on the compositional principle of co-authorship as the default, indeed contributes to irritating existing narratives and conceptualizations of American histories and cultures—not least as it regularly draws the readers’ attention to the power- and conflict-laden political and institutional contexts and agents that have given shape to exactly these narratives and conceptualizations.
It is through this shift in perspective in that the handbook goes beyond a mere collection of comparisons between Northern and Southern American cultures and media, as it takes seriously its promise of incorporating transregional / transnational dimensions in all its entries. Sure, the Inter-American sections in the entries vary in length, so does the degree to which they focus on hemispheric intersections, but the shared structure functions like a central thread that helps navigating the book. A book which, through the consequent incorporation of multiple voices on the one hand and references to specific cultural and medial phenomena on the other, also goes beyond a mere claim of Inter-American hybridity by showing in detail and in a very informed, but equally precise way, how the formation and transformation of cultural concepts, notions, practices, and media have indeed been shaped by entangled histories.
Of course, a handbook always has to make choices, as the number of entries is limited. So with its strong focus on literature, music, and audiovisual media, which already covers a vast field of cultural production, some areas are not included, among them, e. g., museal cultures or sports, which, as another central arena of Inter-American entanglements, should have been taken into consideration. Furthermore, the choice and placement of some of the entries is slightly irritating. It is, for instance, not easy to figure out why exactly there is an entry on “Graphic novels” in the first section of the handbook and one on “Comics” in the second, when, as it is argued, lines of demarcation between the two are sometimes difficult to draw (cf., e. g., 99)—is this due to an implicit distinction between “high” and “popular” culture, which categorizes comics in the latter branch while positioning graphic novels (as “literature”) in the former? Moreover, some entries, such as “Media participation” and “Media consumption” are, thematically, quite close to one another, which results in some redundancies (which, of course, only appear as such if you choose to read the respective entries along your way through the handbook). One may also ask why there are a number of entries on different forms of visual cultures (e. g., “Muralism,” “Television,” “Photography”) and another one on “Visual cultures” in general. Sure, the latter provides an excellent overview of the field. Yet, besides the fact that there are no equivalent entries on “Media,” “Literature,” or “Music” as the key terms of the volume’s two sections, this case also illustrates that the alphabetic order, at times, is a little at odds with a systematic approach. Such an approach probably would have placed the latter entry first or incorporated it as part of the introduction to this section (both options, as this reviewer concedes, would have come with a range of other challenges, of course). Some puzzlement may also be caused by three articles on “… media” in the second section: one on “Latino media,” one on “Public media,” and one on “Social media”—whereas “Social” and “Public” indicate a distinction on the same categorical level and thus complement each other, “Latino” is quite a different category, and—read against the other two entry titles—stands out, as it triggers the question why the ethnic marker “Latino” (shouldn’t it be “Latinx”?) is used in a handbook that sets out to illustrate entanglements rather than to redraw boundaries. In the end, then, one may also wonder why the title of the entire volume uses the singular form “Culture” in the first place, considering the historical and regional diversity of cultures and media in the Americas that are shed light upon. The plural form would have certainly done justice to the notion (also pushed forward by the handbook) that cultures always come in the plural form.
These are minor criticisms, considering the overall achievement of the handbook, which turns out to be a rich resource for those researchers, teachers, and students who would like to make themselves familiar with key concepts and issues in the scholarly discussion of cultures and media of the Americas. Not only does it provide concise and knowledgeable insights into these concepts and issues, it also does its Inter-American approach justice by putting into dialogue perspectives from the Northern and the Southern hemisphere, thereby exposing, to different degrees in the different entries, processes of knowledge production and their entanglements in specific historical and regional constellations that are formed and transformed by the uneven global distribution of power resulting from the colonial past and (post)colonial present of the continent.
That said, it would perhaps have been worthwhile to show a more nuanced sensitivity towards the handbook’s own enmeshment in specific institutional frameworks. To be precise, whereas the “General introduction” extensively ponders on the power-laden dynamics of the formation and transformation of knowledge, claiming that the process of editing the handbook was therefore based on the integration of different voices, a look at the list of contributors leaves the impression that there could have been more epistemological perspectives gathered in this volume: Almost all authors have been socialized in academia and are well-trained in the forms and formats of scholarly knowledge production—how else should they become contributors to a scholarly handbook, if not by being familiar with and subjected to the rites and merits of the institution of the university? Accordingly, one could have taken the handbook’s claim that “concepts are explored […] from different epistemological perspectives” as an impulse to discuss whether (and if yes, in how far) this is actually possible in a format that is derived from and reproduces a specific institutional framework. Sure, transgressing these (at times highly exclusive, or exclusionary) boundaries, e. g., by including more voices from non-academic fields, would have been a challenge perhaps too big to accomplish in book format—though this handbook does an excellent job in taking first steps into that direction. Yet, one could have wished for a slightly more (self)critical stance on the question in how far the volume itself, as a handbook published by a Western publishing house, is an articulation of a specifically Western, or Northern, epistemological mindset; and in how far it might thus also help reproduce some of the (narrative and non-narrative) systematizations of knowledge that it set out to put to the test. With such a self-critical stance, then, the claim that the entries had been peer-reviewed in a way that “authors from the North were especially reviewed by experts from the South and vice versa” (3), which certainly helps open up an Inter-American dialogue, might have been re-read as also sustaining an academic ritual that is characteristic of a specific form of scholarship and the epistemological framework it rests upon. Consequently, to “unthink concepts in an Inter-American perspective” (3)—if possible at all—would have perhaps also required a different site of articulation, a different genre, perhaps, to unsettle the principles of Western, or Northern, academia. Again, this is not to say that the volume does not significantly contribute to this unsettling. However, an evaluation of its very own shape and its conditions of production and dissemination (the hardcopy costs more than 200 euros!) could have added surplus value to the decolonial enterprise it set out to pursue.
So, in a way, the handbook is also stimulating in that it not only sheds new light on media and cultures of the Americas, but also raises more questions which are vitally important and need further attention in enhancing a North-South dialogue in order to (re)frame the field of Inter-American Studies. Therefore, my critical remarks are not at all meant to diminish the achievements of the volume (it is a handbook, and as such, it does a fantastic job!)—they are rather supposed to illustrate that the authors succeeded in mapping a highly complex field of inquiry, the exploration of which makes us aware of the fact how necessary, but how difficult it is at the same time, to overcome habitualized forms of thinking and writing in order to unsettle and reconfigure established forms of knowledge production still so deeply embedded in what Walter Mignolo has described as the “colonial matrix of power” (xv et passim).
Martin Butler (Carl von Ossietzky Universität Oldenburg)