The Social Sciences, Epistemic
Violence, and the Problem of the
“Invention of the Other”
During the last two decades of the
twentieth century, postmodern philosophy and cultural studies developed
into important theoretical currents that impelled a strong critique, inside
and outside the academy, of the pathologies of Westernization. Their many
differences notwithstanding, both currents attribute these pathologies to the
exclusive, dualist character that modern power relations assume. Modernity
is an alterity-generating machine that, in the name of reason and humanism, excludes from its imaginary the hybridity, multiplicity, ambiguity, and
contingency of different forms of life. The current crisis of modernity is seen
by postmodern philosophy and cultural studies as a historic opportunity for
these long-repressed differences to emerge.
I hope to show here that the proclaimed “end” of modernity clearly
implies the crisis of a power mechanism that constructs the “other” by
means of a binary logic that represses difference. I also argue that this crisis
does not imply the weakening of the global structure within which this
mechanism operates. What I will refer to here as the “end of modernity” is
merely the crisis of a historical conﬁguration of power in the framework of
the capitalist world-system, which nevertheless has taken on other forms
in times of globalization, without this implying the disappearance of that
world-system. I argue that the present global reorganization of the capitalist
economy depends on the production of differences. As a result, the celebratory afﬁrmation of these differences, far from subverting the system, could
be contributing to its consolidation. I defend the claim that the challenge
now facing a critical theory of society is precisely to reveal what the crisis
N e p a n t l a : V i e w s f r o m S o u t h 3.2
Copyright 2002 by Duke University Press
of the modern project consists of and to indicate the new conﬁgurations of
global power in what Jean-François Lyotard has called the “postmodern
My strategy is ﬁrst to interrogate the signiﬁcance of what Jürgen Habermas has called the “project of modernity,” seeking to demonstrate the origins of two closely linked social phenomena: the formation of
nation-states and the consolidation of colonialism. Here I emphasize the
role played by techno-scientiﬁc knowledge, particularly knowledge that
emerges from the social sciences, in the consolidation of these phenomena.
Later I show that the “end of modernity” cannot be understood as the result
of an explosion of normative frameworks in which this project taxonomically operated, but, rather, as a new conﬁguration of global power relations
that is based on the production of differences instead of on their repression.
I conclude with a brief reﬂection on the role of a critical theory of society
in times of globalization.
The Project of Governmentability
What do we mean when we speak of the “project of modernity”? Primarily
and generally, we refer to the Faustian drive to submit the entire world to
the absolute control of man under the steady guide of knowledge. The
German philosopher Hans Blumenberg (1973, pt. 2) has shown that, at a
conceptual level, this project required humanity’s elevation to the rank of
principal organizer of all things. To attain this power, mankind must ﬁght a
war, one it will win only by knowing the enemy profoundly, deciphering its
most intimate secrets, so that its own tools may be used to make it submit
to human will. This is precisely the role of techno-scientiﬁc reason with
respect to nature. Ontological insecurity can only be eliminated insofar
as we increase our mechanisms of control over the magical or mysterious
forces of nature, especially over those aspects of it that cannot be reduced
to calculability. In this sense, Max Weber speaks of the rationalization of
the West as the process of “disenchanting” the world.
When we speak of modernity as a “project,” we are also principally
referring to the existence of a central instance from which the mechanisms
of control over the natural and social world are distributed and coordinated.
This primary instance is the state, guarantor of the rational organization of
human life. In this context, “rational organization” means that the processes
of disenchantment and demagicalization of the world to which Weber and
Blumenberg refer have begun to be regulated by the state’s guiding hand.
The state is understood as the sphere in which all societal interests reach
Castro-Gómez . The “Invention of the Other”
a point of “synthesis,” that is, the locus which formulates collective goals
valid for everyone. This requires the application of “rational criteria” that
permit the state to channel the desires, interests, and emotions of citizens
toward its own goals. The modern state thus not only acquires a monopoly
on violence, but also uses it to rationally “direct” the activities of its citizens
in accordance with previously established scientiﬁc criteria.
The U.S. sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein (1991) has shown how
the social sciences became a fundamental part of this project of organization
and control over human life. The birth of the social sciences was not an
additive phenomenon to the framework of political organization deﬁned
by the nation-state, it was constitutive of that framework. In order to govern
the social world, one ﬁrst had to generate a platform from which it could be
scientiﬁcally observed.1 Without the aid of the social sciences, the modern
state would not be in a position to exercise control over people’s lives,
deﬁne long- and short-term collective goals, or construct and assign to its
citizens a cultural “identity.”2 The restructuring of the economy according
to the new demands of international capitalism, the redeﬁnition of political
legitimacy, and even the identiﬁcation of the speciﬁc character and values
of each nation all required a scientiﬁcally endorsed representation of how
social reality “functioned.” Governmental programs could only be realized
and executed on the basis of this information.
The taxonomies elaborated by the social sciences were thus not
limited to the development of an abstract system of rules called “science”—
as the founding fathers of sociology ideologically believed. Instead, these
taxonomies had practical consequences, for they legitimized the regulative
politics of the state. The practical matrix that led to the rise of the social
sciences was the need to “adjust” human life to the apparatus of production.
The social sciences teach us which “laws” govern economy, society, politics,
and history. For its own part, the state deﬁnes its governmental politics on
the basis of this scientiﬁcally legitimized normativity.
Now, this attempt to establish proﬁles of subjectivity coordinated
by the state entails a phenomenon that I call here the “invention of the
other.” By “invention,” I do not mean simply the way in which a certain
group of people abstractly represents itself to others; rather, I refer to the
mechanisms of power/knowledge from which those representations are
constructed. The problem of the “other” must be approached theoretically
not so much as the “concealment” of a preexisting cultural identity as from
a perspective that takes into account the process of material and symbolic
production that modern societies have been involved in since the beginning
of the sixteenth century.3 I would like to illustrate this point by turning to
the work of the Venezuelan thinker Beatriz González Stephan, who has
studied the disciplinary mechanisms of power in the context of nineteenthcentury Latin America and the ways in which these constructions made
possible the “invention of the other.”
González Stephan identiﬁes three disciplinary practices that
helped shape Latin American citizenship in the nineteenth century: constitutions, manuals of etiquette [urbanidad], and grammar manuals. Following the Uruguayan theorist Angel Rama, González Stephan observes that
these technologies of subjectiﬁcation had a common denominator: their
legitimacy lay in writing. In the nineteenth century, writing was an exercise
that met the need to organize and institute the logic of “civilization.” It
anticipated the modernizing dream of the Creole elites. The written word
constructed laws and national identities, designed modernizing programs,
and organized the understanding of the world in terms of inclusion and exclusion. For this reason, nations’ foundational projects were carried out by
creating institutions legitimized by writing (schools, hospices, workshops,
prisons) and hegemonic discourses (maps, grammars, constitutions, manuals, treatises on hygiene) that regulated public conduct. These institutions
and texts established boundaries between people and assured them that
they existed either inside or outside of the limits deﬁned by written legality
(González Stephan 1996).
The formation of the citizen as a “subject of law” is only possible
within the limits of the disciplinary structure and, in this case, within the
space of legality deﬁned by the constitution. The juridico-political function
of constitutions is precisely to invent citizenship, in other words, to create
a ﬁeld of homogenous identities that make the modern project of governmentability viable. For example, the Venezuelan constitution of 1839
declares that the only people eligible for citizenship are married males who
are older than twenty-ﬁve, literate, own property, and practice a profession
earning them no less than four hundred pesos a year (ibid., 32). The acquisition of citizenship is thus a sieve through which only those subjects who
ﬁt the proﬁle required for the project of modernity may pass: ones who are
male, white, head of household, Catholic, landowner, literate, and heterosexual. Those who do not meet these requirements (women, servants, the
insane, the illiterate, blacks, heretics, slaves, Indians, homosexuals, dissidents) are excluded from the “lettered city,” sealed off in a ﬁeld of illegality,
and subject to punishment and therapy by the same laws that exclude them.
Castro-Gómez . The “Invention of the Other”
But if the constitution formally deﬁnes a desirable type of modern
subjectivity, pedagogy is the great artisan of its materialization. Schools
become a space of enclosure that forms the type of subject called for by
the constitution’s “regulative ideals.” The purpose is to impose a discipline
on the mind and body that enables people to be “useful to the fatherland.”
Children’s behavior must be regulated and monitored, compelling them to
acquire knowledge, abilities, habits, values, cultural models, and lifestyles
that will allow them to assume a “productive” role in society. González
Stephan does not direct her attention to the school as an “institution of
seclusion,” however, but rather toward the disciplinary function of certain pedagogical technologies such as manuals of etiquette, especially the
famous one published by Manuel Antonio Carreño (1854). The manual
operates within the ﬁeld of authority laid out by the book, with the purpose of ordering the subordination of human instinct, the control over the
body, and the domestication of any kind of sensibility considered “barbaric”
(González Stephan 1995). No manuals were written on how to be a good
peasant, a good Indian, a good black person, or a good gaucho, since all of
these human types were seen as barbaric. Instead, manuals were written on
how to be a “good citizen” so as to become part of the civitas, the legal space
inhabited by the epistemological, moral, and aesthetic subjects that modernity requires. For this reason, the Carreño manual warns that “without the
observation of these rules, more or less perfect according to the degree of
civilization in each country[,] . . . there will be no way to cultivate sociability,
which is the principle of communities’ conservation and progress and of all
well-ordered societies’ existence” (quoted in ibid., 436; González Stephan’s
The manuals of etiquette became a new bible that would teach citizens proper behavior in the most diverse situations of life, for each person’s
degree of success in the civitas terrena, or the material reign of civilization,
depended on his or her faithful obedience of norms. “Entrance” into the
banquet of modernity required compliance with the normative prescription
that distinguished members of the new Latin American urban class that
began to emerge during the second half of the nineteenth century. The “we”
that the etiquette manuals refer to, then, is the same class of bourgeois citizens whom the republican constitutions address: citizens who know how
to speak, eat, use silverware, blow their nose, deal with servants, and behave
themselves in society. These subjects are perfectly familiar with “the theater
of etiquette, the rigidity of appearance, the mask of contention” (González
Stephan 1995, 439). In this sense, González Stephan’s observations agree
with those of Max Weber and Norbert Elias, for whom the formation of
the modern subject went hand in hand with the requirement of self-control
and the repression of instincts, the goal being to make social difference
more visible. The “process of civilization” implies an increase of the threshold of shame, for it was necessary to clearly distinguish oneself from all of
the social classes that did not pertain to the arena of civitas which Latin
American intellectuals like Domingo Faustino Sarmiento identiﬁed as the
paradigm of modernity. “Civility” and “civic education” thus operated as
pedagogical taxonomies that separated dress coats from ponchos, neatness
from ﬁlth, the capital from the provinces, the republic from the colony,
civilization from barbarism.
Within this taxonomic process, grammar manuals also played a
foundational role. In particular, González Stephan mentions Andrés Bello’s
Gramática de la lengua castellana destinada al uso de los americanos [Grammar of the Castilian language destined for American use] published in
1847. The project of the construction of the nation required the stabilization of language so that laws could be properly implemented and commercial transactions facilitated. A direct relationship exists, therefore, between
language and citizenship, between grammar manuals and manuals of etiquette: the purpose in all of these cases is to create the Homo economicus, or
the patriarchal subject charged with promoting and carrying out the modernization of the republic. From the normativity of the written word, the
Latin American grammar manuals sought to establish a culture of “buen
decir” (formal speech) so as to avoid “the vices of popular speech” and the
coarse barbarisms of the masses (González Stephan 1996, 29). We are thus
faced with a disciplinary practice that reﬂects the contradictions that would
eventually tear apart the project of modernity: establishing the conditions
for “liberty” and “order” implies the subjection of instincts, the suppression
of spontaneity, and the control over differences. To be civilized, to enter
into modernity, to become Colombian, Brazilian, or Venezuelan citizens,
individuals not only had to behave properly and know how to read and
write, but they also had to make their language ﬁt a series of norms. The
submission to order and the norm leads the individual to substitute the
heterogeneous, spontaneous vital ﬂow for a continuum that is arbitrarily
constituted from the written word.
It is thus clear that the two processes indicated by González
Stephan, the invention of citizenship and the invention of the other, are
genetically related. The creation of the modern citizen in Latin America entailed the generation of a reverse image from which this identity
Castro-Gómez . The “Invention of the Other”
could assess and afﬁrm itself as such. The construction of the imaginary
of “civilization” required the production of its counterpart: the imaginary
of “barbarism.” In both cases, more is at stake than just abstract representation. These imaginaries have a concrete materiality, in the sense that
they are bound to abstract systems of disciplinary nature such as schools,
law, the state, prisons, hospitals, and the social sciences. It is precisely this
link between knowledge and discipline that permits us to speak, following
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, of the project of modernity as an exercise in
Although González Stephan indicates that all of these disciplinary
mechanisms strove to create the proﬁle of Homo economicus in Latin America, her genealogical analysis, inspired by the microphysics of power analyzed by Michel Foucault, does not permit an understanding of how these
processes are linked to the dynamic of capitalism’s constitution as worldsystem. In order to conceptualize this problem, a methodological turn is
necessary: the genealogy of power-knowledge, as developed by Foucault,
must be broadened into the sphere of longue durée macrostructures (as analyzed by Fernand Braudel and Immanuel Wallerstein) so we can visualize
the problem of the “invention of the other” from a geopolitical perspective.
To this end, it would be useful to examine how postcolonial theories have
approached this problem.
The Coloniality of Power, or, the “Other Face” of Modernity
One of the most important contributions of postcolonial theories to the
current restructuring of the social sciences is their demonstration that the
rise of nation-states in Europe and the Americas from the seventeenth to
the nineteenth centuries was not an autonomous process, but rather one
with a structural counterpart: the consolidation of European colonialism
abroad. The social sciences’ persistent negation of this link between modernity and colonialism has been one of the clearest signs of their conceptual
limitations. Permeated from the beginning with a European imaginary, the
social sciences projected the idea of an aseptic and self-generating Europe,
historically formed without any contact with other cultures (see Blaut 1993).
Rationalization—in a Weberian sense—would thus have resulted from the
attribution of qualities inherent to Western societies (the “passage” from
tradition to modernity) and not from Europe’s colonial interaction with
America, Asia, and Africa since 1492.4 From this perspective, the experience of colonialism seems to be completely irrelevant to an understanding
of the phenomenon of modernity and the rise of the social sciences. For
Africans, Asians, and Latin Americans, this means that colonialism did
not primarily represent destruction and plunder but, above all, the start of
the tortuous, inevitable road to development and modernization. This is
the colonial imaginary that traditionally has been reproduced by the social
sciences and by philosophy on both sides of the Atlantic.
Nevertheless, postcolonial theories have shown that any inventory
of modernity which does not take into account the impact of the colonial
experience on the formation of properly modern power relations is not only
incomplete, but also ideological. For this type of disciplinary power, which,
according to Foucault, characterizes societies and modern institutions, was
generated precisely at the center of a web of power/knowledge marked by
coloniality. Coloniality should not be confused with colonialism. While colonialism refers to a historical period (which, in the case of Latin America,
ended in 1824), coloniality references a technology of power that persists
today, founded on the “knowledge of the other.” Coloniality is not modernity’s “past” but its “other face.” The category of “coloniality of power,”
suggested by Peruvian sociologist Aníbal Quijano (1999), refers precisely
to this situation.
In Quijano’s opinion, colonial depredation is legitimized by an
imaginary that establishes incommensurable differences between the colonizer and the colonized. Here, notions of “race” and “culture” operate
as a taxonomic construction that generates opposing identities. The colonized thus appears as the “other of reason,” which justiﬁes the use of
disciplinary power by the colonizer. Wickedness, barbarism, and incontinence are “identitarian” markers of the colonized, while goodness, civilization, and rationality pertain to the colonizer. Both identities are related
through exteriority and are mutually exclusive. Any communication between them cannot take place in the sphere of culture—since their codes
are incommensurable—but only in the sphere of the Realpolitik dictated by
colonial power. A “just” politics would be one that, through the implementation of juridical and disciplinary mechanisms, attempts to “normalize”
the other by completely Westernizing him or her.
The concept of the “coloniality of power” broadens and corrects
the Foucauldian concept of “disciplinary power” by demonstrating that
the panoptic constructions erected by the modern state are inscribed in a
wider structure of power/knowledge. This global structure is conﬁgured
by the colonial relation between center and periphery that is at the root
of European expansion. As Enrique Dussel has shown, this structure is
created during the “ﬁrst modernity,” which corresponds to the hegemony
Castro-Gómez . The “Invention of the Other”
of Spain over the Atlantic circuit (see Dussel’s contribution to this issue of
Nepantla). The concept of disciplinary power Foucault works with refers to
the “second modernity,” or the period of state biopolitics in the eighteenth
and nineteenth centuries, and can be understood as a “modality” of the
coloniality of power.
We can thus state that modernity is a project of governing the
social world which emerged in the sixteenth century. Its constructions of
power/knowledge are anchored in a double coloniality: one directed inward
by European and American nation-states in their effort to establish homogenous identities through politics of subjectiﬁcation, the other directed
outward by the hegemonic powers of the modern/colonial world-system in
their attempt to ensure the ﬂow of primary materials from the periphery
to the center. Both processes are part of the same structural dynamic.
My thesis is that the social sciences developed in this space of modern/colonial power and in the ideological knowledges it generated. From
this perspective, the social sciences did not produce an “epistemological
rupture” (in an Althusserian sense) with respect to ideology. Instead, the
colonial imaginary permeated the entire conceptual system of the social
sciences from their inception.5 In this sense, the majority of seventeenthand eighteenth-century social theorists (Hobbes, Bossuet, Turgot, Condorcet) agreed that the “human species” slowly emerged from ignorance
and crossed different “stages” of perfection until ﬁnally reaching the “coming of age” that modern European societies had achieved (see Meek 1981).
The empirical referent employed by this heuristic model to deﬁne the ﬁrst
“stage,” the lowest on the scale of human development, is that of American
indigenous societies as described by European travelers, chroniclers, and
navigators since the sixteenth century. The characteristics of this ﬁrst stage
are savagery, barbarism, and the total absence of art, science, and writing.
“In the beginning all was America,” that is, all was superstition, primitivism, the struggle of all against all, the “state of nature.” The ﬁnal stage
of human progress, already achieved by European societies, is constructed
instead as the absolute “other” of the ﬁrst and as its reverse image. In this
stage reign civility, the state of law, the cultivation of science, and the arts.
Here, man has reached a state of “enlightenment” in which, according to
Kant, he is capable of self-government and the autonomous use of reason.
Europe has blazed the path to civilization that all nations of the planet must
It is not difﬁcult to see how the conceptual apparatus that emerged
with the social sciences in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is sustained by a colonial imaginary of ideological character. Binary concepts
like barbarism and civilization, tradition and modernity, community and
society, science and myth, infancy and maturity, organic solidarity and mechanical solidarity, and poverty and development, among many others, have
fully permeated the analytic models of the social sciences. The imaginary of
progress, according to which all societies evolve in time following universal
laws inherent to nature or the human spirit, appears as an ideological product constructed from the mechanism of modern/colonial power. The social
sciences function structurally as an “ideological apparatus” that internally
sanctioned the exclusion and disciplining of those who did not conform to
the proﬁles of subjectivity that the state needed to implement its politics of
modernization. Externally, the social sciences legitimized the international
division of labor and the inequality of the terms of interchange and commerce between the center and the periphery, that is, the enormous social
and economic beneﬁts that European powers obtained through domination of their colonies. The production of alterity within and the production
of alterity without were part of the same construct of power. Coloniality
of power and coloniality of knowledge were situated in the same genetic
From Disciplinary Power to Libidinal Power
I would like to conclude this essay by analyzing the transformations capitalism undergoes once the end of the project of modernity is consolidated,
and the consequences these transformations may have on the social sciences
and a critical theory of society.
I have conceptualized modernity as a series of practices oriented
toward the rational control of human life. Among these practices are the
institutionalization of the social sciences, the capitalist organization of the
economy, the colonial expansion of Europe, and, above all, the juridicoterritorial conﬁguration of nation-states. We have also seen that modernity
is a “project” because the rational control over human life is exercised from
within and without through a primary instance, which is the nation-state.
But what do we refer to when we speak of the end of the project of modernity? We can begin by responding in the following manner: Modernity no
longer operates as a “project” insofar as the social is conﬁgured by instances
that escape the control of the nation-state. Or, in other words, the project
of modernity reaches its “end” when the nation-state loses the capacity to
Castro-Gómez . The “Invention of the Other”
organize people’s social and material lives. It is then that we may properly
speak of globalization.
Although the project of modernity always had a tendency toward
the “worldness” (Mignolo 2000) of human action, I believe that what today
is called “globalization” is a sui generis phenomenon, since it brings with
it a qualitative change in the global mechanisms of power. I would like
to illustrate the difference between modernity and globalization using the
concepts of embedding and disembedding developed by Anthony Giddens:
while modernity disembeds social relations from their traditional contexts
and reembeds them in posttraditional spheres of action coordinated by the
state, globalization disembeds social relations from their national contexts
and reembeds them in postmodern spheres of action that are no longer
coordinated by any particular instance.
From this perspective, I maintain that globalization is not a “project,” because governmentability no longer needs an “Archimedian point,”
that is, a central instance that regulates the mechanisms of social control.6
We can even speak of a “governmentability without government” to indicate the spectral, nebulous character, at times imperceptible but effective for
this very reason, that power assumes in times of globalization. Subjection
to the world-system is no longer assured through the control over time and
body exercised by institutions like factories or schools but, rather, by the
production of symbolic property and its irresistible seduction of the consumer’s imaginary. The libidinal power of postmodernity attempts to shape
individuals’ total psychology in such a way that each may reﬂexively construct his or her own subjectivity without having to oppose the system. On
the contrary, the system itself offers the resources that permit the differential
construction of the Selbst. Whatever lifestyle one chooses, whatever project
of self-invention or act of autobiographical writing, there is always an offer
on the market and an “expert system” that guarantees its trustworthiness.7
Far from repressing differences, as did the disciplinary power of modernity,
the libidinal power of postmodernity stimulates and produces them.
We have also noted that within the framework of the modern
project, the social sciences basically functioned as alterity-producing mechanisms. This was due to the fact that the accumulation of capital required
the creation of a “subject” proﬁle that would easily adapt to the demands of
production: white, male, married, heterosexual, disciplined, hardworking,
self-controlled. As Foucault has shown, human sciences contributed to the
creation of this proﬁle insofar as their object of knowledge was constructed
through institutional practices of conﬁnement and sequestration. Prisons,
hospitals, asylums, schools, factories, and colonial societies were laboratories from which the social sciences recovered, through its reverse image, the
ideal of “man” that would impel and sustain the processes of capital’s accumulation. This image of “rational man” was obtained counterfactually, by
studying the “others of reason”: the insane, Indians, blacks, social misﬁts,
prisoners, homosexuals, the poor. To construct the proﬁle of subjectivity
required by the modern project, therefore, all these differences had to be
Nevertheless, if my argument up to this point is plausible, in the
moment at which the accumulation of capital no longer demands the suppression but rather the production of differences, the structural link between
the social sciences and the new mechanisms of power should also change.
The social sciences and humanities must undergo a “paradigm shift” allowing them to adjust to the systemic requirements of global capital. The case
of Lyotard seems to me symptomatic. He lucidly afﬁrms that the metanarrative of the humanization of humanity has entered into crisis, but he
simultaneously proclaims the birth of a new legitimizing narrative: the
coexistence of different “language games.” Each language game deﬁnes its
own rules, which no longer need to be sanctioned by a higher court of
reason. Neither Descartes’s epistemological hero nor Kant’s moral hero
continues to function as a transcendental instance that deﬁnes the universal
rules by which all players should play, irrespective of the diversity of the
games in which they participate. For Lyotard, in the “postmodern condition” it is the players themselves who construct the rules of the game they
wish to play in. There are no previously deﬁned rules (Lyotard 1990 ).
The problem with Lyotard is not that he has announced the end
of a project that, in Habermas’s (1990, 32–54) opinion, is still “inconclusive.” Instead, the problem stems from the new narrative that Lyotard
proposes. To afﬁrm that previously deﬁned rules no longer exist is to render invisible—that is, to mask—the world-system that produces differences
based on rules deﬁned for all of the globe’s players. Let me be clear: the
death of the world-system’s metanarratives of legitimation does not mean
the death of the world-system itself! Rather, it entails a change in the power
relations within the world-system, which generates new narratives of legitimation such as the one proposed by Lyotard. The strategy of legitimation is
different, however: no longer a set of metanarratives that reveal the system,
ideologically projecting it onto an epistemological, historical, and moral
macrosubject, it consists, rather, of micronarratives that leave the system
outside of representation; that is, they make it invisible.
Castro-Gómez . The “Invention of the Other”
Something similar occurs within so-called cultural studies, one of
the most innovative paradigms in the humanities and social sciences toward the close of the twentieth century.8 Of course, cultural studies have
contributed to the loosening of disciplinary boundaries whose rigidity was
converting our departments of social sciences and humanities into a handful of incommensurable “epistemological ﬁefdoms.” The transdisciplinary
vocation of cultural studies has been extremely healthy for some academic
institutions that, in Latin America at least, had become accustomed to
“guarding and administering” the canon of every discipline.9 It is in this
context that the Gulbenkian Commission report shows how cultural studies have begun to build bridges between the three great islands among
which modernity distributed scientiﬁc knowledge (Wallerstein et al. 1996,
Nevertheless, the problem lies not so much in the inscription of
cultural studies into the university sphere, nor even in the type of theoretical
questions cultural studies provoke or the methodologies they utilize, as in
their use of these methodologies and in their responses to these questions. It
is evident, for example, that the spread of the culture industry throughout
the world has called into question the separation between high and low
culture, which thinkers from the “critical” tradition like Max Horkheimer
and Theodor Adorno were still bound to, as were our great Latin American “men of letters,” with their conservative, elitist tradition. But within
this interchange between high culture and popular culture enabled by the
mass media, within the planetary negotiation of symbolic property, cultural studies have seemed to see only a liberating explosion of differences.
Urban mass culture and the new forms of social perception generated by
information technologies are viewed as spaces of democratic emancipation,
and even as a locus of hybridization and resistance before the imperatives
of the market. Faced with this diagnostic, one begins to wonder if cultural
studies have mortgaged their critical potential to the commodity fetishism
of symbolic property.
As in Lyotard’s case, the world-system remains the great absent
object in the representation offered us by cultural studies. It is as if merely
naming “totality” had become taboo for contemporary social sciences and
philosophy, just as in Judaism it was a sin to name or represent God. The
“permitted” topics—which today enjoy academic prestige—are the fragmentation of the subject, the hybridization of life-forms, the articulation
of differences, and the disenchantment with metanarratives. The use of
categories like “class,” “periphery,” or “world-system,” which propose to
encompass heuristically a multiplicity of speciﬁc situations of gender, ethnicity, race, background, or sexual orientation, marks one as “essentialist,”
as behaving in a “politically incorrect” manner, or at least as having fallen
under the spell of metanarratives. These reproaches are sometimes justiﬁed,
but perhaps there is an alternative.
I consider that the great challenge for the social sciences consists
in learning how to name totality (with its persistent colonial face) without
falling into the essentialism and universalism of metanarratives. The task
of a critical theory of society is, then, to make visible the new mechanisms
of colonial production of differences in times of globalization. In the Latin
American case, the major challenge is to “decolonize” the social sciences
and philosophy. Although this is not a new agenda for us, our goal today is
to disengage ourselves from a whole series of binary categories (colonizer
versus colonized, center versus periphery, Europe versus Latin America,
development versus underdevelopment, oppressor versus oppressed, etc.)
that dependency theories and liberation philosophies worked with in the
past. We must understand that it is no longer possible to conceptualize new
conﬁgurations of power using this theoretical tool.10 From this perspective,
the new agendas of postcolonial studies could revitalize the tradition of
critical theory in our ﬁeld (Castro-Gómez, Guardiola-Rivera, and Millán
de Benavides 1999).
Desirée A. Martín
1. As Anthony Giddens demonstrates clearly, the social sciences are “reﬂexive systems,”
since their function is to observe the social world within which they themselves are produced. See Giddens 1999 , 23.
2. I have addressed the problem of cultural identity as a construct of the state in CastroGómez 1999.
3. For this reason, I prefer to use the category “invention” instead of Argentine philosopher Enrique Dussel (1992)’s “encubrimiento” (covering over or concealing).
4. Recall that Max Weber wonders, at the beginning of The Protestant Ethic (1992 ,
13), by “what combination of circumstances the fact should be attributed that
in Western civilization, and in Western civilization only, cultural phenomena
have appeared which (as we like to think) lie in a line of development having
Castro-Gómez . The “Invention of the Other”
universal signiﬁcance and value.” This question guides his entire theory of
5. A genealogy of the social sciences should show that the ideological imaginary that
penetrated the social sciences originated in the ﬁrst phase of consolidation
of the modern/colonial world-system, that is, in the period of Spanish hegemony.
6. The materiality of globalization is no longer constituted by the disciplinary institutions of the nation-state, but rather by corporations that recognize neither
territories nor borders. This implies the conﬁguration of a new framework
of legality, that is, a new form of the exercise of power and authority, such
as the production of new punitive mechanisms (a global police) that would
guarantee the accumulation of capital and the resolution of conﬂicts. The
wars in the Persian Gulf and Kosovo are good examples of the “new world
order” emerging after the Cold War and as a consequence of the “end” of
the project of modernity. See Hardt and Negri 2000; and Castro-Gómez and
7. I take the concept of “trust” deposited in expert systems from Giddens (1999 ,
8. For an introduction to Anglo-Saxon cultural studies, see Agger 1992. For the case
of cultural studies in Latin America, the best introduction is still Rowe and
Schelling 1993 .
9. Here we need to understand the different political signiﬁcance that cultural studies
have had in North American and Latin American universities. While cultural
studies in the United States have become a convenient vehicle for rapid
academic “careerism” in a structurally ﬂexible atmosphere, in Latin America
they have served to combat the frustrating ossiﬁcation and parochialism of
10. For a critique of the binary categories that Latin American thinking engaged with
during the twentieth century, see Castro-Gómez 1996.
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