Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Humboldt's Mexican Texts and Landscapes

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Humboldt's Mexican Texts and Landscapes

Article excerpt

    Notwithstanding the extreme care which I bestowed in verifying the
    results, I have no doubt of having committed many [plusieurs] very
    serious errors, which will be pointed out in proportion as my work
    shall excite the inhabitants of New Spain to study the state of
    their country.
    --Alexander von Humboldt, 1811

The bicentennial of Alexander von Humboldt's year-long sojourn in Mexico, from March 1803 to March 1804, provides the stimulus to analyze his role in the relationship between long-term landscape transformation and the cultural bias that continues to be such a central orthodoxy in modern economic development (Sluyter 1999). That orthodoxy, the "Pristine Myth" in William Denevan's (1992) terms, maintains that the precolonial landscapes of the Americas were undeveloped and, therefore, that non-Westerners are unproductive and economic development must equate to cultural westernization (Sluyter 2001). James Blaut (1993) coined a slightly different term to label that same orthodoxy: the "myth of emptiness," which dictates that development must diffuse from the West to the non-Wests. Despite this article's historical focus on Humboldt's visit to late colonial Mexico, the following analysis directly concerns present-day economic development (Sluyter 2002).

Mary Louise Pratt (1992) has already cast Humboldt in a central role in that phenomenon. She concluded that Humboldt reinvigorated the colonial pristine myth on the eve of the independence of many of the Latin American republics. His characterization of the Americas as "primordial nature" turned a colonial belief into a modern scientific fact: "Even the label 'New Continent' is revived, as if three centuries of European colonization had never happened or made a difference. What held for Columbus held again for Humboldt: the state of primal nature is brought into being as a state in relation to the prospect of transformative intervention from Europe" (Pratt 1992, 126-127). That conclusion derives from textual analysis of Humboldt's writings in the context of his influence on the modern sciences as well as on the political elite and foreign investors in the Latin American republics that became independent from Spain over the three decades following his 1799-1804 expedition (Miranda 1962, 106-107, 205-210; Livingstone 1992, 133-138; Pratt 1992, 111-113, 175-182; Florescano 1994, 203-204; Mendoza Vargas and Bernal 2003).

Although the work of Pratt and others such as Edward Said (1979) spawned a boom in textual analysis of scientific travel literature that generally confirmed and elaborated her conclusions, she has also had critics. The most meaningless offer the cliche that because Humboldt was, like everybody, a product of his time he cannot be held to the moral standards of ours. They thereby misrepresent Pratt's goal, which is to understand, not to judge, Humboldt's role in a process that has so greatly transformed the world precisely because he was not only a product of his time but also a major "producer" of his time--and ours. The more meaningful critiques reanalyze his texts using alternative assumptions and thereby come to somewhat different conclusions about his role in that process (Sachs 2003).

Yet, irrespective of the conclusions of such textual analyses, they alone will never resolve Humboldt's role in the (post)colonial reinvigoration of the pristine myth because they verge on idealism (Sluyter 1997). Nobody, not even someone of Humboldt's stature, can impose an idea about a place on a place simply by writing about that place. Even accepting Pratt's conclusion that Humboldt's writings were centrally involved in the modern reinvigoration of the colonial idea that the precolonial landscapes of Latin America were pristine, he based those texts in part on preexisting texts and on his observations of landscapes. All of those texts--the ones on which Humboldt drew, as well as those he wrote--partially derived from the colonial transformation of those landscapes and subsequently became involved in their further transformation. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.