Women at Sea pp 99-134 | Cite as

When the Subaltern Travels

Slave Narrative and Testimonial Erasure in the Contact Zone
  • Mario Cesareo


Travel carries wide implications in contemporary culture. In the field of cultural studies and, more generally, in the humanities, travel has become one of the predominant paradigms informing the political unconscious of current research. The concepts of border, deterritorialization, mapping, cartography, liminality, interlanguages, the intellectual-as-nomad, stand-point epistemology, hybridity, language-games theory, Otherness, pluritopical hermeneutics, and globalization, as part of an analytical repertoire that has come into prominence in the last two decades, attest to this ubiquity. The contemporary experience of heightened geographical mobility, the changing configuration of nation-states, the constant flux of ethnic, sexual, and gender identities, the rapid dissemination of information, and other phenomena associated with the globalization of late capitalism, present suggestive reasons as to why such notions have come to dominate current debates and scholarship. Under the garments of these analytical tools lurks travel as an all-powerful presence. Through its mediations we are to understand that new territories, communities, and paradigms are brought into focus, allowing for a cultural and historical negotiation of sorts: the nomad-intellectual would be the one to bring forth the tremendous difference of these spaces and practices allowing for a new understanding of this proliferation through the deployment of a critical apparatus that would seem to render this promiscuous materiality intelligible—in the process, I would suggest, textualizing the materiality of these practices, displacing the anthropological “body” of the nineteenth century by the “texts” of contemporary cultural studies, and replacing liberatory social practices with social exegesis.


Contact Zone Textual Production Late Capitalism Abolitionist Movement Travel Writing 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    In Mary Louise Pratt’s book Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (New York: Routledge, 1992).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 4.
    I follow Levinas’ understanding of this unmediated confrontation. As Adriaan Peperzak notes in his To the Other: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 1992): “Levinas understands Heidegger’s attempt to think Being in the light of the expression es gibt (the normal German equivalent of the English ‘there is’ and the French ‘il y a’) as the celebration of a profound generosity by which Being would bestow light, freedom, truth, and splendor to all beings. The il y a does not, however, strike Levinas as particularly generous but rather as an indeterminate, shapeless, colorless, chaotic, and dangerous ‘rumbling and rusding.’ The confrontation with its anonymous forces generates neither light nor freedom but rather terror as a loss of selfhood. Immersion in the lawless chaos of ‘there is’ would be equivalent to the absorption by a depersonalizing realm of pure materiality” (18).Google Scholar
  3. 5.
    As Sander L. Gilman suggests in his Difference and Pathology: Stereotypes of Sexuality, Race, and Madness (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985): “The infant’s movement from a state of being in which everything is perceived as an extension of the self to a growing sense of a separate identity takes place between the ages of a few weeks and about five months. During that stage, the new sense of ‘difference’ is directly acquired by the denial of the child’s demand on the world. We all begin not only demanding food, warmth, and comfort, but by assuming that those demands will be met. The world is felt to be a mere extension of the self. It is that part of the self which provides food, warmth, and comfort. As the child comes to distinguish more and more between the world and self, anxiety arises from a perceived loss of control over the world. But very soon the child begins to combat anxieties associated with the failure to control the world by adjusting his mental picture of people and objects so that they can appear ‘good’ even when their behavior is perceived as ‘bad.’ “With the split of both the self and the world into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ objects, the ‘bad’ self is distanced and identified with the mental representation of the ‘bad’ object. This act of projection saves the self from any confrontation with the contradictions present in the necessary integration of ‘bad’ and ‘good’ aspects of the self. The deep structure of our own sense of self and the world is built upon the illusionary image of the world divided into two camps, ‘us’ and ‘them.’ ‘They’ are either ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Yet it is clear that this is a very primitive distinction which, in most individuals, is replaced early in development by the illusion of integration. “Stereotypes are crude sets of mental representations of the world. They are palimpsests on which the initial bipolar representations are still vaguely legible. They perpetuate a needed sense of difference between the ‘self and the ‘object,’ which becomes the ‘Other.’ Because there is no real line between self and Other, an imaginary line must be drawn; and so that the illusion of an absolute difference between self and Other is never troubled, this Une is as dynamic in its ability to alter itself as is the self. This can be observed in the shifting relationship of antithetical stereotypes that parallel the existence of ‘bad’ and ‘good’ representations of self and Other.” (17–18)Google Scholar
  4. 6.
    See Eric J. Leed, The Mind of the Traveler: From Gilgamesh to Global Tourism (New York: Basic, 1991).Google Scholar
  5. 9.
    For a discussion of the face-to-face, see Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luck-man’s The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (New York: Anchor, 1967), 28–34.Google Scholar
  6. 11.
    Michel de Certeau makes a very interesting analysis of this cannibalistic dynamic of Sameness over the Other in “Montaigne’s ‘Of Cannibals’: The Savage ‘I’.” In Heterologies: Discourse on the Other (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 67–80.Google Scholar
  7. 17.
    For a discussion of these missionary aesthetics in connection to modes of institutional life, see Mario Cesareo’s Cruzados, mártires y beatos: emplazamientos del cuerpo colonial (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 1995).Google Scholar
  8. 23.
    See John Beverley’s Against Literature (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), xiii. For a self-critique of his previous unprobematic acceptance of the notion of contact zone, consult Beverley’s “Respuesta a Mario Cesareo,” in Revista Iberoamericana (January–March 1996): 225–233. Also see my “Hermenéuticas del naufragio y naufragio de la hermenéutica: comentarios en torno a Against Literature,” in pages 211–224 of the same issue.Google Scholar
  9. 25.
    In Frances Smith Foster’s Witnessing Slavery: The Development of Ante-bellum Slave Narratives (London: Greenwood Press, 1979), 45.Google Scholar
  10. 28.
    See Moira Ferguson’s edition of The History of Mary Prince: A West Indian Slave (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997), 24–25.Google Scholar
  11. 29.
    Cited in Henry Louis Gates’s The Classic Slave Narratives (New York: Penguin, 1987), xii.Google Scholar
  12. 46.
    In the words of Américo Castro, cited in Francisco Rico’s La novela picaresca y el punto de vista (Barcelona: Seix Barrai, 1973), “As the biography of such a minuscule character would have lacked all justification (nineteenth-century Romanticism was still quite distant), the author ceded his word to the creature of his imagination. The autobiographical style is thus inseparable from the very operation of artistically treating a theme that had been, until then, non-existent or frowned upon … Lazarillo’s autobiographic mode is organic to his anonymity” (21–22, my translation).Google Scholar
  13. 48.
    Mrs. [A.C.] Carmichael, Domestic Manners and Socal Condtions of the White, Coloured, and Negro Population of the West Indies (London: Whittaker, Treacher & Co., 1833), 257. Quotations in the text are from the second edition (New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969). Subsequent page references will appear in parentheses in the text.Google Scholar
  14. 50.
    See Gayatri Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?” In The Postcolonial Reader. Edited by Bill Ashcroft et al. (London: Routledge, 1995), 24–28.Google Scholar
  15. 52.
    The narrator is a pícaro only insofar as a narrated character. As narrator it ceases to be one as soon as his writing reveals his truancy by giving up the mask. He becomes a pícaro-for-the-other by ceasing to be a pícaro-for-himself; that is when he becomes a narrator—not coincidentally, the picaresque is always narrated from the vantage point of either the pícaro’s repentance of past deeds or as a result of her overcoming of her subaltern condition. As Genaro Talens has pointed out in his Novela picaresca y práctica de la transgresión (Madrid: Ediciones Jucar, 1975): “A fundamental characteristic of the picaresque novel, insofar as discourse, is the transitory character and accessory function of the picaresque lifestyle. The pícaro is not an entity but a function of his social upward mobility. He exists to cease to exist. His only goal as pícaro is to cease being one” (31, my translation).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert and Ivette Romero-Cesareo 2001

Authors and Affiliations

  • Mario Cesareo

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations