Let the reader beware. Educated readers naturally feel entitled to know what they’re reading—often, if they try hard enough, to know it with the conspiratorial intimacy of a potential partner. This book reminds us that cultural differences may in fact make us targets of a text, not its co-conspirators. Some literature, especially culturally particular or “minority” literature, actually uses its differences and distances to redirect our desire for intimacy toward more cautious, respectful engagements. To name these figures of cultural discontinuity—to describe a rhetoric of particularism in the Americas—is the purpose of Proceed with Caution.
In a series of daring forays, from seventeenth-century Inca Garcilaso de la Vega to Julio Cortázar and Mario Vargas Llosa, Doris Sommer shows how ethnically marked texts use enticing and frustrating language games to keep readers engaged with difference: Gloria Estefan’s syncopated appeal to solidarity plays on Whitman’s undifferentiated ideal; unrequitable seductions echo through Rigoberta Menchú’s protestations of secrecy, Toni Morrison’s interrupted confession, the rebuffs in a Mexican testimonial novel. In these and other examples, Sommer trains us to notice the signs that affirm a respectful distance as a condition of political fairness and aesthetic effect—warnings that will be audible (and engaging for readings that tolerate difference) once we listen for a rhetoric of particularism.