The keyword “west” typically has two referents. On the one hand, it refers to the western United States or the area west of the ninety-eighth meridian, where arid country begins; on the other hand, it invokes a global geographic division between the “West” as a center of global colonial powers in Europe and North America and the non-West, or the “rest” of the world. To take up the keyword “west” is to contend at once with its national as well as its global genealogies.
Recent writing and research/travel has allowed me to think about “global wests,” meaning the relatedness of Wests in settler colonial states, especially the U.S., Canada, Australia, and Aotearoa (New Zealand). Work related to the particularities of the US regional West as it intersects especially with Mexico and Indian Country is also ongoing.
I am very pleased to be a Visiting Scholar at Stanford’s Lane Center for American West in Fall of 2017.
Américas Research Center & Local/Global Wests
In 2007 through 2009, I participated in the founding of the Rice University Amerícas Research Center. Mindful of the ever-increasing regional and global dimensions of the city of Houston, Texas, the Américas Research Center promotes interdisciplinary research on the broad topic of Latin America. It underwrites new research through lectures, conferences, seminars, research support, and visiting scholarships, and draws from the intellectual intersections of fields as diverse as Latin American studies, Chicano/a studies, Borderland studies, studies of the Local/Global West, Indigenous studies, and American studies.
The Local/Global Wests research unit of the Américas Research Center distinguishes itself from other U.S. research initiatives dedicated to the American West through its emphasis on local western concerns as they meet up with and are informed by the cultures, literatures, economies, ecologies, languages, and peoples of the Américas. Such an emphasis can take all kinds of directions, but all of them will be committed to working beyond U.S.-centered scholarships and political questions as well as English-language sources and epistemologies. Future possible directions can be found by scrolling down.
In 2011, I hosted the American West/Amerícas Seminar at Rice University. Participants for this three-day event included: José Aranda, Luis Duno-Gottberg, Gisela Heffes, Beatriz Gonzàlez-Stephan, Manuel Gutiérrez, Chadwick Allen, Susan Kollin, Audrey Goodman, Neil Campbell, Stephen Tatum, Alex Adkins.
Other activities related to Local/Global Wests
2014 Keynote. “Place as Site of World-Making: Feminist States of Critical Regionalism.” III International Conference on the American Literary West. University of the Basque Country, Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain. October 10.
2014 Keynote. “Global Wests, Feminist Critical Regionalisms, Thinking Otherwise.” Pop West: An International Symposium. University of Western Australia, Perth. July 25.
2014 Keynote. “What’s ‘Critical’ about Critical Regionalism?” Bavarian International Summer Academy. American Studies in a Transatlantic Perspective: Critical Regionalism in Politics and Culture. Texas State University, San Marcos. June 1.
2012 “Surfing and the Significance of the Frontier in American Culture After the Cold War.” An International Symposium on The Significance of the Frontier in an Age of Transnational History. The Huntington/USC Institute on California and the West, The Huntington Library. San Marino, California. February 25.
2009 Invited Lecture. “Intergenerational Transfer of Feminist Knowledges in California Surf Shops.”Tercera Jornada Internacional. Monterrey Technological Institute. Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, México. October 8.
2009 Keynote. “Surfing the New World Order.” Líder Académico of Humanities and Social Sciences: Lecture Series on Gender, Space, Politics. Monterrey Technological Institute, Monterrey, México, September 6-12.
2008 “Girl Power in Mexico? Ethnographies of Surfistas (Surfer Girls) in Sayulita.” Segunda Jornada Internactional. Monterrey Technological Institute, Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, México. October 7.
Local/Global Wests Statement (3/09, revised 2012)
This research unit of Américas Research Center takes as its project what it calls the local/global American West. It begins through a recognition of the city of Houston as a contemporary local place famous simultaneously for its civic “friendliness” or southern hospitality as well as the world’s largest western rodeo (“rodeo,” of course, drawn from Spanish). As a contemporary human and social geography, Houston’s local regional features are thus mixed or hybrid, produced historically through the intersections of southern plantation-based economies and western continental conquest. Today Houston is a world city at the crossroads of the oil industry, NAFTA, global medicine, maritime and air commerce. Houston is home to Radio Saigon, Univision, and large diasporic communities from Nigeria, south Asia, China, and, especially, Latin America. Vietnamese and Chinese are the third and fourth most spoken languages in Houston, Spanish the second. One-third of Texans speak Spanish. Such hybrid legacies indicate the presence, within the local, of routes of travel, trade, migration — that is, between the local, regional, national, and global. Routed through and in critical engagement with all of these histories and meanings, Houston, like other cosmopolitan southwestern US locales, came to be.
Distinguishing itself from other U.S. research centers dedicated to the American West, this cluster’s emphasis is upon local western concerns as they meet up with and are informed by the cultures, literatures, economies, ecologies, languages, and peoples of the Américas. Such an emphasis might take any number of directions, but all of them will be committed to working beyond U.S.-centered scholarships and political questions as well as English-language sources and epistemologies. The cluster’s commitments to real time places and people as well as to the scholarly vision of the ARC call upon participants to create critical spaces conducive to and dependent upon transregional and transdisciplinary collaboration. The expertise necessary to approach large inter-American questions requires the acknowledgement of extensive existing scholarship in Latin American Studies even as we attempt to build new communities of scholars, partner with other institutions and Centers, and share research across disciplines. To do such work, knowledge of Spanish, Portuguese or indigenous languages, and/or sensitivity to the politics of language and translation, are requisite skills. As do all of the US national research centers on the American West, this cluster seeks to work closely with scholars not just across the humanities and social sciences, but also in environmental studies, architecture, environmental engineering, biology, chemistry, ecology.
Research associated with the cluster will be interested in the “American West” and its travels and transformations within the broadly conceived Américas. American West is understood expansively to signal a particular New World spatial ontology, economic circuit, affect, cultural geography, style, and contact zone of competing Spanish and English colonialities. However and necessarily for analyses of inter-American power, American West (including west coast, Alaska, Hawaii) is also understood to retain its fixity as a military, geopolitical, and cultural region of the United States strategically crucial to U.S. interests in the hemisphere related to trade agreements, immigration policies, security arrangements, cultural and linguistic formations. Indigenous tribal peoples whose contemporary national lands and livelihoods are located inside the American West cut across and call into question all of these north/south, east/west, and colonialist/nationalist spatial configurations. What conceptual vocabularies and critical genealogies will aid or hinder the sets of issues suggested by this research range? What problems and possibilities accompany the term “West” as organizing perspective?
The challenge of the “the American West,” as an object of study, is its powerful association in history and culture with nationalist expansion and U.S. empire. Scholarship focusing on the U.S. West therefore must continually recognize this challenge and locate itself against expectations that its own interest in or usage of “West” equates to imperial politics and colonizing knowledge. This sense of West as ongoing instrument of Manifest Destiny or cowboy diplomacy is strongest, in fact, in the U.S. and among U.S. nationals. A substantial critical literature has been written in conversation with these challenges exemplified both by the New Western History, and by critical regionalist approaches to American Western literature and culture. The term “critical regional” delinks West as metonym of nation. It asks: what is West if it is not (U.S.) America? Working through the mappings of West articulated in U.S. minority, feminist, and indigenous cultural productions and lifeways, through postcolonial critiques of Area Studies, poststructural geography, as well as theories of the local/global dialectics of globalization, an expanded and reframed critical regionalism shows geography’s lack of historical innocence and, as practice, opens onto “other wests” or third/border spaces not as ordered by or consenting to rationalized or gridded coloniality. Hence, the West is both there and not there. It is visible and written and also under erasure. It stammers (as Neil Campbell would say), a language within a language, and through its incoherencies, deterriorializes. The production of such “other wests” constitute an archive of critique and struggle over the designs of empire and meanings and histories of “West” and offer as well complex rethinkings of topics seemingly foreclosed like the politics of popular or mythic Westerns, the masculinity of the cowboy, the “gone native” mobilities of the white frontiersman, the visual codes of masterworks in landscape painting. “Other Wests” dislodge West from its exclusive rooted-ness or stasis as nationalist territory. By putting West into motion, attending to the routes always intersecting it and opening it beyond its borders, West evidences possibility as a critical perspective able to do focused battle with one of the most powerful of imaginative tools in the arsenal of coloniality: the West as America(s).
One example of a research direction likely familiar to many concerns the most popularized common figure of West/Américas: the proud, masculine, horse-rider. The horse, of course, signals Spanish presence in the New World in all its implications and mutations. The horseman might be aristocrat, criollo, revolutionary, patriot, vagabond, or common cowhand. Most famously this Américas horseman is the cowboy and also the Indian brave of the continental U.S. and contemporary Canada; but the cowboy and Indian on horseback is always understood in some relation to the vaquero (less often the charro) of Mexico. Such linkages extend onto the llanero of Venezuela and Columbia, the huaso of Chile, the Paniolo of Hawaii, the gaucho of Argentina and Brazil, and so forth. Of what broad social or cultural or economic import is the ubiquity of these linked but distinct figures in folklore, cinema, song, various nationalist (including socialist) political cultures, and popular pulp fictions? What new knowledges do comparative perspectives on the horseman produce concerning, for instance, the spatialization of New World lands after horses/cattle/grazing ecologies, cross-continental empire building, the power of gender formations in emergent New World nationalisms, modernity/coloniality and its labor practices, the promise of unaliented labor or less rationalist work regimes, indigeneity and mobility, warfare, inter-American identities and imaginations, and so forth? Can such a framing of “Américas” answer, at all, to questions of the histories and lifeways of indigenous peoples before Europeans?
Collaborations between the local/global American West cluster and various Centers at Rice, as well as the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, are very promising. The cluster’s emphasis on Houston as local urban geography as well as a world city dovetails with the Houston School of Urban Studies, housed in CORRUL, Rice’s Center for Race, Religion and Urban Life. The cluster’s attentiveness to gender analysis and a commitment to building bridges between women and feminist scholars across the Américas make the Center for Study of Women, Gender and Sexuality (CSWGS) a fortuitous partner. The focus on specific locales offers opportunities to engage environmental studies, and the cluster will seek out joint scholarly initiatives with The Center for the Study of Environment and Society (CSES). The cluster welcomes mutual programming between itself and the MFAH’s exceptional archive in Western Americana, including its masterworks in US landscape painting and sculpture, as well as the MFA’s recently acquired collections in Latin American Art.
The cluster will sponsor book projects, related symposia, colloquia, outreach efforts, and exhibits. The inaugural event, beginning in the Spring of 2011, is “American West/Américas.” It will be the first in a series of five workshop seminars, conducted over a projected period of five years (pending funding).
Research Topics & Theoretical Directions
- Other Wests. Social spaces, across the Américas, at the edges of the colonial apparatus or evolving nation states, which speak the borders of empire, “civilization,” and development processes. Other Wests typically are home to the unassimilated or indigenous and stage efforts to flourish and push back against ascendant colonial orderliness. Examples might be Mexico’s northern zones, the contemporary US borderlands and historical westering frontier (including Hawaii), the Argentinean Pampas, the Islands of Pearls or Cubagua (Margarita Island, Venezuela). “Other Wests” emphasize outlier cultural geographies as signature spatial features of New World settlement and its disorders, alternatives, undersides.
- Border Thinking as an epistemology of the global south. Comparative third spaces. Postcolonial theory and alternative/critical modernity as it emerges from south Asia and Africa; conversations with coloniality/border gnosis as it emerges from Latin America; theories of double consciousness or borderlands subjectivity produced by U.S. minorities. Utility and challenges for comparative theorizations of American West/Américas.
- Visual Culture and Music In addition to art, film and photography as territory of exploration and contact, of viewing Américas and West. Music as site of hybrid crossings, ambivalent form, nomadology of sound, new point of departures/returns.
- Region/Nation/Postnation. Regions in U.S. imaginations typically function in relation to nation (West as America/South as failed America/Northeast as liberator of America), whereas across Latin America, nations often offer protection from imperial northern neighbors and regions operate less dialectically in relation to nation. In an era of postnation and neoliberal regimes, and of a new transnationalism and hemispheric turn in fields like American Studies, particular analytic care is due to the complex status and political operations of nations/regions of the Américas. Work in American West/Américas is distinctively poised to call critical attention to and theorize comparative nationalisms and their borders.
- Social Movements/Forces across Political Spectrums. The West as fountain of imperial manhood, sanctuary for exiled revolutionaries, ground zero for Minutemen, Texas Rangers, global counterculturalism and drug experimentation, ecoterrorism, Chicano nationalism, queer urban pride, and Gold Mountain. Politics and activisms across the West/Américas. Issues of labor and mobility, the rise of socialist states in Latin America and post-Cold War socialist imaginaries, the rise of English language literacy throughout the Américas, tourism and globalization, narco-culture and bare life, development from below, women, environment, youth (including, in the U.S., their criminalization). Including transnational political communities configured through cyberculture, alternative cinema, performance art, music (i.e. Los Angeles’s Greater Eastside music/art scene and its “sound of the Américas,” or Calexico or Los Lobos, as well as the Latin Grammys).
- Indigenous peoples and cultures. Comparative indigeneity across the Américas and tribal nations based in the geopolitical U.S. West. Questions of tribal sovereignty or treaty agreements with States (including rights of water, land use, religious observance, legal/economic exemptions, sacred territory). Comparative language survival, cultural survivance, economic self determination. Disproportionate exposure to environmental and nuclear toxicities, general morbidity. Recent popular indigenous movements (i.e. Zapatistas, movements in Bolivia, Ecuador), issues of language, nationalism, ethics, gender, labor. Relations between global consumer culture, ethno-tourism, pan-indigenous identities.
- Energy and Aesthetics. Houston, Dallas, Caracas, Maracaibo. Oil and petrodollars in the Américas. Ranch and hacienda wealth giving way to oil wealth, comparative relations of oil industry under capitalism and socialism. Masculinity, style, the Marachuco, the Texas rancher/oilman. Recent “new city” architectures of the skyscraper. The “museum industrial complex” (according to Mike Davis) whereby energy-related philanthropy sponsors such institutions as Museum of Fine Arts Houston and its world class holdings in Latin American Art; the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and its huge holdings in Western Americana; the Sid Richardson Collection of Western Art in Forth Worth, Texas; the Amon Carter Museum of Western Art in Fort Worth.