|Title:||Associate Professor of Spanish, Director of Spanish Programs|
Ph. D. (Indiana)
Immaterial Transcendences: Colonial Subjectivity as Process in Brazil's "Letter" of Discovery (1500).
Janiga-Perkins, Constance, J. Immaterial Transcendences: Colonial Subjectivity as Process in Brazil’s “Letter” of Discovery (1500). Wor(l)ds of Change: Latin American & Iberian Literature 51. New York: Peter Lang, 2001. 144 pp.
Janiga-Perkins’ Immaterial Transcendences offers a close reading of Pero Vaz de Caminha’s Letter of Discovery [Carta de achamento] that aims at uncovering rhetorical devices within the text that point to a (European or Portuguese) colonial subjectivity in crisis as it attempts to represent the newly encountered (Amerindian) Other. Janiga-Perkins argues that far from being a seamless narrative where Renaissance Europe takes textual possession of the New World and its inhabitants, the birth certificate of Brazil reveals the act of representation as ‘process’ whereby both subject and object are transformed into a ‘third’ or ‘hybrid’ entity. This particular insight opens up the possibility for new readings of this seminal text. In fact, the author treats Caminha’s Letter both as historical and literary text, therefore her work is a cross between literary analysis and historiography, at the same time as it is nurtured by conceptual notions stemming from postcolonial theory, deconstruction, and to a certain degree, psychoanalysis.
More precisely, Janiga-Perkins suggests that there is a tense movement within the text that, in essence, reveals a struggle to bridge the gap between separateness and unity, as far as the relationship between the Portuguese and the Tupi is concerned. Thus, at one extreme of this contact zone there is a series of ‘textual stutters’ that occur in key segments of the document. These stutters would constitute unconscious rhetorical manifestations within European colonial discourse of the impossibility of taking possession of the Other. The author desires to determine when, how, where, and why these textual stutters occur. A large portion of Janiga-Perkins study is dedicated to analyzing these rhetorical manifestations.
At the other extreme of the Tupi-Portuguese contact zone would be instances of reciprocal acculturation where the distinction between self and Other begins to blur. This is most noticeable in reference to nudity. It is a well-known fact to readers of this foundational text that the Portuguese become most fascinated by the unselfconsciousness displayed by the Tupi with regard to nudity. This plain reality drastically subverts fifteenth/sixteenth century European notions of culture and civilization, and yet, as Janiga-Perkins affirms, the writing subject in the Letter of Discovery seems to be at least temporarily seduced into accepting the naturalness of the naked body. Hence, Immaterial Transcendences takes the reader through various passages within the Letter where one witnesses ‘acts of transcendence,’ in which the writing subject transcends the existential/cultural position where he is initially located as the narrative progresses.
Immaterial Transcendences offers one of the most suggestive as well as meticulous close readings available of Brazil’s Letter of Discovery. Janiga-Perkins’ book is successful in providing new critical ways of approaching one the most canonical texts within Luso-Brazilian literature and historiography. Most particularly, by absorbing various hermeneutical strategies and conceptual notions from contemporary theoretical currents such as postcolonialism and deconstruction, and effectively deploying them in her analysis, Caminha’s Letter can now be read differently; no longer as a site of colonial stasis but as a site of contradiction, ambivalence, and resistance. This particular book exemplifies the considerable leaps in the critical reception of colonial texts since the pioneering philological work by Jaime Cortesao (in A Carta de Pero Vaz de Caminha, 1943) and is more in line with thf more recent theoretically informed readings by critics such as Alfredo Bosi (Dialetica da colonizacao, 1992), even though Janiga-Perkin’s work is not informed by Marxism as Bosi’s work.
For its content matter and engaging theoretical approach Immaterial Transcendences should appeal greatly to literary critics and historians alike, Luso-Brazilianists, as well as Latin Americanists, and in general, scholars of colonialism.
As for its shortcomings, the author could have helped the reader by further clarifying the meaning of the book title. The author intimates as to its various shades of meaning but a more straightforward definition at the beginning would have been useful. Otherwise, the term “Luso-Brazilian,” which is never used by the author, is in fact more appropriate when describing the “place of origin” of Caminha’s Letter. It is as Brazilian as it is Portuguese and it was produced at a moment when the borders between both Portugal and Brazil were not clearly defined. The term “Conquest,” on the other hand, has been traditionally used in reference to the Spanish experience of navigations and “discoveries” and not to the Portuguese. Yet, this conscious or unconscious semantic levelling of the Portuguese and Spanish expansionistic experiences on the author’s part is suggestive and begs us to re-consider the terminology that is used to describe and ultimately to distinguish between historical realities that may not be as far apart as has been traditionally believed particularly within the realm of Portuguese historiography. These are rather small yet not unimportant critical observations that in no way undermine the rigor and originality of Janiga-Perkins’ critical enterprise as a whole in Immaterial Transcendences.
University of Minnesota
Arenas, Fernando. Rev of Immaterial Transcendences: Colonial Subjectivity as Process in Brazil’s “Letter” of Discovery (1500), by Constance Janiga-Perkings. Luso-Brazilian Review. Vol 39, Number 1. Summer 2002