“Who Gets to Speak in Our Intellectual Traditions?” – An Interview with Edgar Garcia

Len Gutkin

Being a Person, Being in Public

Convened by Claire Jarvis

Facing Fifty: Feminist Press at the Dawn of a New Era of Publishing — Two Interviews

Jason Arthur

Being a Woman in Public

Convened by Claire Jarvis

“Honor the Syntax”: an Interview with Lydia Davis

Lola Boorman

“Some Things Come Unbidden”: An Interview with Jeff VanderMeer

Finola Prendergast

“No Excuses”: An Interview with Viet Thanh Nguyen

David Haeselin

“This is all artificial”: An Interview with Jennifer Egan

Zara Dinnen

“African Writers in a New World”: An Introduction

Interviews Curated by Aaron Bady


Edgar Garcia's Signs of the Americas (University of Chicago, 2020) ranges across disciplines in pursuit of a startling thesis: Nonalphabetic sign systems, such as petroglyphs, hieroglyphs, and even the still-undecoded Incan knot-writing known as khipu, have exerted a decisive influence on the Anglophone, Hispanophone, and Indigenous literature of the Americas. In substantiating this claim, Garcia, an assistant professor in the English department at the University of Chicago, synthesizes research in an unusually broad range of fields, including literary theory, Indigenous and ethnic studies, anthropology and ethnography, and the history of ideas.

The book's cast is endlessly varied: 16th-century Aztec priests, the foundational anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, the radical Chicana feminist Gloria Anzaldúa, the Acoma Pueblo poet Simon J. Ortiz, and the beatnik godfather William S. Burroughs, to name just a few. I talked with Garcia about the canon, literary study's relationship to anthropology and Indigenous studies, the contraction of the humanities, and reading Ezra Pound in community college.

This interview originally appeared in the Chronicle Review.

Art credit for the banner photo, escaleras simbólicas de los borrados, goes to Roberto Harrison.


We went to grad school together, in the Yale English department, and took a lot of the same classes. Much of what you write about in Signs of the Americas certainly wasn't being taught in those courses. How did you find your way to this material?

A lot of the project came out of a frustration with my education, with a curriculum that was predominantly white and canonical. I wanted to do something that felt more connected to my own experiences as a person of color, from an immigrant background, from Central America, who is at once intimately bound with the histories of the Americas but for various political and historical reasons disconnected from those histories. My parents came here because of civil wars in Central America. There was a desire to forget, a desire to not process the trauma, a desire to restart life that, for me, was an erasure. I wanted to investigate that gap. That's what led me to Mesoamerican studies, Indigenous studies, and the poetry of the Americas.

So in that way, what is in this book was not in the curriculum at Yale. But in another way it was, because one of the things I really appreciated in my education there was its emphasis on form. Form is not a singular phenomenon there are forms, literary forms that inform different world-conceptions and world-realities and ways of being. Close contextual attention to form helped me to think about how worlds other than the sanctioned, canonical one are formed and, in turn, how they transform, complicate, and expand our sense of form.

Working across anthropology, literary studies, ethnic studies, Indigenous studies for you, is form the glue that connects these things?

I come from a literary-studies background, so it's very oriented to that discipline, but my work aspires to use form as an interface for putting various disciplines into conversation.

I don't think Signs of the Americas is an interdisciplinary book. It's trying to understand the problems and possibilities of literary study as a discipline, and how those problems and possibilities are in conversation with or resistant to the problems and possibilities of Indigenous studies, anthropology, ethnic studies, and history.

If anything, the book taught me to respect what different methods and tools can do, and to understand the boundaries of an intellectual tradition or discipline as being very productive. For me, literary study involved a conception of form in the singular. And what anthropology and Indigenous studies opened up was a conception of form in the plural, or worlds in the plural. How do we understand the multiple worlds in our midst, in so many poems and stories?

You describe your method with compound disciplinary terms: anthropological poetics, anthropological philology.

I use anthropology as a somewhat inadequate synonym for world heterogeneity. Anthropology, in its better instantiations, has emphasized the value of world-difference, while still holding fast to the problems of representation and power that come up when you try to represent other worlds. I argue that if all you talk about are problems of representation and power, you end up reproducing a singular world system in which all we have is colonial violence cascading into an inescapably singular torrent of the capitalist world system in spite of the fact that there continue to be other kinds of intellectual and cultural flourishing, resistant to that system and in many cases irrespective of it. There are other worlds in our midst. I've embraced those worlds, and to try to give them the intellectual priority I feel they deserve, I've tried to work out a description of how poetics works from a few non-Western sign systems: pictography, hieroglyphs, petroglyphs, khipu, and others.

A big target of your work is the question of a singular modernity  what you call in the introduction "the unstoppable movement toward monoculture that made Levi-Strauss's tropiques so triste." You're skeptical of the accuracy of that model.

My critique is that that representation of a world ends up producing the problem it sets out to describe that it ends up absorbing all noncongruent cultural and political systems into an already totalized fact, so all that there is is the colonial legacy in capitalism.

My book is in no way trying to deny those legacies. If anything, it emphasizes that colonialism's problems and emergencies persist to the present day in various harmful ways: racism for instance, intertwined with wealth accumulation. But my point is that's not the only thing that exists. There are persistent sources of resistance and cultural flourishing that are not absorbed into that world-system. There are other worlds out there worlds that provide ways for reimagining how we think about nation, race, wealth, sexuality, gender, environment.

I don't think that secularity and religion are among the book's announced topics, but I sensed a running engagement with secularity studies and with what is sometimes called "postsecular critique."

Yes and no. Yes inasmuch as I engage with the anthropologist of religion Talal Asad, and also with some critiques of secular studies. But no inasmuch as, at least as far as my reading of secularism studies goes, it always felt a little bit monocultural. There never seemed to be, to me, a secular world. In my own research and writing it was apparent that myth, magical thinking, nonalphabetical forms of inscription, had theory to them, had historicity to them, had ways of engaging a changing present, and haven't gone away.

One of the big things about the book is that it's not about dead sign systems. These sign systems are still in use. There's an entire chapter on the use of pictographic sign systems in contemporary Indigenous law today, right now. So it's not that these things have disappeared, or that we have to have a secular or postsecular reckoning with something that we've forgotten.

What some people call myth, or some people call magical thinking we might just call it "theory." Or "conceptuality."

You show throughout the book how these systems are living, in various arenas. But you also write about their death. In your discussion of Louise Erdrich’s Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country, you quote Erdrich talking with the “Horned Man,” a well-known petroglyph on an island in the Lake of the Woods, off the coast of Ontario. Erdrich asks the figure on the petroglyph why she should write books, and he tells her: “So we can talk to you even though we are dead.'”

I was reminded of Stephen Greenblatt’s famous opening to Shakespearian Negotiations, “I began with the desire to speak with the dead.” For Greenblatt, even the English Renaissance, accessible to contemporary scholars in ways that some of what you study is not  even that stuff is dead in some basic way.

One of my work's central arguments is that these sign systems are not dead, and that central argument is confirmed in the textual moment that you're pointing to the petroglyph is alive enough to talk to Louise Erdrich, to say "We are here." But in another way, it's announcing that it's dead. The question is, what is dead here? And how does one engage with that?

For me, that death connotes justice. It's a question of staying with the dead, of staying with the injustice of the destruction and silencing of 500 years of colonialism. In that way, the book is about the dead: about the countless people who have been killed and disappeared, the cultural systems that have been erased, the intellectual traditions that have been eliminated. It's a question of staying with the dead until that injustice is redeemed, and the justice of persistence on this hemisphere is established as it is in projects like Erdrich's.

Another way to think about it is to ask who gets to speak in our intellectual traditions. One of the most frustrating things for me, coming through my academic training, was that I was asked time and again to rely on Western critical conceptions to explain the cultural systems of the Americas to think about minoritized or Indigenous writers as content to be explained by Western European theory. In contrast to that, Gloria Anzaldúa says, "We must be the theory we must inhabit the theorizing space." I take her very seriously.

On the one hand, the humanities in general, and literary studies in particular, are undergoing a period of contraction that might prove fatal. On the other hand, fields like Indigenous studies and ethnic studies are becoming more central to the humanities, and to some extent flourishing there  or at least they had been. It's hard to say what will happen now, after Covid.

It's a conundrum, and I really don't have a good answer for it. My intuition is one of frustration: to feel that as soon as questions of race leave the social sciences and enter the humanities more expansively, the humanities is declared dead. I think that we really have to rethink what are the humanities in light of that.

You're also a poet. I remember an amusing thing you said, probably during our first or second year of grad school: "This is such a great con I'm going to get funded to write poetry, and when I leave I can be a poet." But then you went on to write what I suspect will be a field-changing book. So you didn't pull off the con.

For a lot of graduate students living in a world that so undervalues humanities, the arts, and even just thinking creatively it's got to feel at least a little bit like a con at times, because we're living in a society that so systematically undervalues critical and creative engagement. For me at least, to learn that I would have time and means to read, study, and write, it certainly felt like I was gaming a system that is generally not designed to support such endeavors. It felt really radical, and full of unusual possibility.

I also think it was a very special moment for me, not having had what is called a traditional academic background, to find a world where ideas and creativity were taken seriously. For me, it was always an opportunity to expand a program of study that began in community college (Chaffey College, in California), where for the first time I was able to read poetry seriously, to pursue ideas seriously, and to find a world where that intellectual pursuit was the world itself. It was a great opportunity for me.

Ezra Pound is in this book, and I know he's an important figure for you. Is it Pound or somebody else who talks about the Ezraversity?

I think it's James Laughlin.

In talking with you and in reading your book, I find myself wanting to refer to the "Edgarversity"  this surprising, heterogenous, unpredictable canon of enthusiasms. If there were an Edgarversity, who would be on the syllabus?

My arrival to Ezra Pound came through community college. Pound was one of the only sources that I had for thinking about political and cultural heterogeneity, for thinking about the value of knowing multiple languages, for putting different languages and cultural systems into conversation. That may be his most unfascistic quality.

Who would be on the syllabus? It's always changing, but there have been people who have been with me forever. I graduated from a high school for at-risk kids. What really saved me in this experimental program was a mentor there who gave me Shelley to read. Shelley has been with me forever. For me, enthusiasm is never removed from the political (what do you choose to love and embrace?), and that relation is coordinated in Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Drawing more on my research, constant sources of inspiration and inquiry are: Gerald Vizenor, Renato Rosaldo, Gloria Anzaldúa, Cecilia Vicuña, Fred Moten, Humberto Ak'abal, Robert Duncan, Gwendolyn Brooks, and William Blake. Then there's Apollonius of Rhodes. He was interested in the powers of ethnography in the ancient world the author of the Argonautica, a wild work of proto-ethnography. Ernst Robert Curtius, whom I learned about in college which made me curious about what the philological project was and how was it trying to understand cultural continuities amidst historical change. Arturo Arias has also been very important for me in that regard. And two constants: One is the K'iche' Mayan story of creation, the Popol Vuh, and the other is Walter Benjamin. These are places of constant learning for me.

So that's it. I just read the Popol Vuh and Benjamin all the time.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Len Gutkin is an associate editor at The Chronicle Review and the author of Dandyism: Forming Fiction From Modernism to the Present (University of Virginia Press).

Past clusters