October 13, 2014
From Posthegemony to Pierre Menard
By (The University of Texas at Dallas)

In his recent book entitled Latinamericanism after 9/11 (2011), John Beverley writes that “globalization and neoliberal political economy have done, more effectively than ourselves, the work of cultural democratization and dehierarchization.”1 Surprisingly, however, Beverley insists that “the possibility of fashioning a new Latinamericanism” involves doubling down, so to speak, on “cultural dehierarchization,” or the very project that by his admission has coincided harmoniously with neoliberalism and the market (22-23). Beverley, of course, is hardly the first to notice the compatibility of neoliberal economics and the politics of identitarian recognition: Charles R. Hale, for example, notes that “the shift to multiculturalism has occurred in the general context of neoliberal political and economic reforms, which are known to leave class-based societal inequities in place, if not exacerbated.”2 For many indigenous Latin Americans, Hale suggests, the result has been the “paradox of simultaneous cultural affirmation and economic marginalization” (493). But the simultaneity of these two processes ceases to be a paradox once we realize that they involve two incompatible approaches to difference. In the simplest terms, whereas the remedy for economic inequality involves abolishing difference, the project of cultural dehierarchization involves celebrating it.3 While many political theorists have attempted to reconcile the competing demands for identitarian recognition and economic redistribution, it is clear that, as Nancy Fraser notes, “recognition claims tend to predominate,” and they have even functioned to “decenter, if not to extinguish, claims for egalitarian redistribution” (8).

Beverley’s project of cultural dehierarchization thus begins to look less like something that was—as he puts it—“ceded to the market and to neoliberalism” by the Left and more like something that is part and parcel of neoliberalism itself (23). If neoliberalism has come hand in hand with a cultural project that absorbs economic inequalities into cultural differences, my argument is that it has also brought with it a series of theoretical investments for Latin American literary criticism that turn interpretative disagreements into the identitarian differences between readers. Indeed, it could be said that one of the most pervasive orthodoxies in the field of Latin American literary and cultural studies is the explicit or implicit repudiation of the idea that what matters about a text is the meaning its author intended.4 This produces a conversion of disagreements into difference because, as I will argue, without intention, or the idea that a text’s meaning exists independently from our individual experience of it, we cannot have interpretive disagreements. In order to disagree with someone about a text’s meaning, in other words, we must not only think that our interpretation is in fact the interpretation but also that our different experiences as readers is irrelevant. How else would it make sense to think that others, who have their own irrefutably distinctive experiences of reading a text, are mistaken about what it means?

In the introduction to her important edited volume entitled The Ethics of Latin American Literary Criticism: Reading Otherwise (2007), Erin Graff Zivin poses a provocative question: “Can the act of reading be understood as an event?”5 If the answer is “yes,” then one consequence is that the reader’s identity must now be seen as essential to the enterprise, since s/he is actually a participant in the event. Moreover, no two readings—or events of reading—will be alike because, among other things, no two readers will be alike. If reading is thought to be an event, then, a full accounting of the subject position of each reader will be fundamentally important, since each reading will vary depending on who is doing it, where, and when. In fact, the entire range of these variations will have to become the focus of our investigations—and we will be left to make sense of them by describing not the text but rather the endless difference of each reading subject, the place in which s/he is reading, etc.

Graff Zivin alternatively considers what might be gained by exploring other “interrelated avenues of inquiry,” such as the role of affect or the extent to which “we can locate within literary discourse an ‘other side’ of representation, some element within the confines of the text (or within our encounter with the text) that resists representation” (2). However, affect and that which “resists representation” are two sides of the same coin since both force us to abandon interpretation in favor of a description of the subject position of the reader. On the one hand, if we are interested in a reader’s affective response to a text, instead of interpreting the text we will have to focus on the particularity of the reader having the affective response. On the other hand, if we are interested in that which resists representation, all that we can logically do is deal with the myriad affective responses it produces, since there is no representation that we can interpret. Both of these questions, however, force us to contend with not only the reader but also everything that is part of the reader’s experience.

The extent to which this is true is illustrated in Julio Cortázar’s classic short story “Continuity of Parks” (1956), in which the reader of a novel realizes that he is a character in the novel he is reading. “Continuity of Parks” is most often read as a text that affirms the participation of the reader in the text.6 However, it could also be said that “Continuity of Parks” points to a range of consequences involved in thinking of a reader as a participant, since at the end of Cortázar’s story the reader discovers not only that he is in the text, but also that everything that surrounds him (and is thus part of his experience) is in the text as well: his green velvet armchair, his house, his study, the “great windows,” the “oak trees in the park.”7 In fact, it is precisely the repetition of these elements from the reader’s surroundings at the end of the story that signal his own presence in the novel he is reading. Hence the “continuity” of “Continuity of Parks,” which is simultaneously Cortázar’s shortest story and, at least logically, his most unending, since if the reader is part of the text, then so is virtually everything else.

The interest in questions such as the event of reading or the affective response of the reader makes identitarian difference the main focus of studying a text, but it also destroys the notion of the text as a discrete object that can be studied in the first place. If reading is an event, or if what is relevant about a text is the affective experience of its readers, studying literature inescapably involves describing the infinite and irreducible difference of reading subjects over space and time. Just as every reading event will be bound up with an account of the subjective particularity of each reader, so, too will the affective responses a text produces. However, the fact is that anyone who has ever understood themselves to have read the same text as someone else, or who has ever disagreed with someone else about what a text means, has already rejected the idea that reading is an event, or that the effects a text produces on the reader have any relevance whatsoever to a text’s meaning. That is because in order for two people to disagree, they must first agree that there is a singular truth about what is and is not part of the text.8 In other words, they must agree that the truth about what the text is exists independent of their individual experiences of it, since if what the text is were to be bound up with their individual experience of it, they would have to think that they are not disagreeing but instead talking about two different texts, each one made different by their own experience. Then, having recognized that their individual experience is autonomous from what the text is, they will then have to face the fact that it makes no sense to justify their beliefs both about what the text is and what it means by referring to themselves or their experience. Instead, each of them will realize that they have the beliefs they have about the text because they think those are the true beliefs about it.

Jon Beasley-Murray’s Posthegemony: Political Theory and Latin America (2010), however, presents a very different account of meaning. “What matters,” Beasley-Murray writes, is “how things present themselves to us, not what they may represent.”9 Beasley-Murray thus replaces representation—which involves what something means—with affect—which involves how something is experienced. From the start, the vision of the world that Posthegemony gives us is essentially and inescapably identitarian. That is because the question of what something means will always be answered with a claim about what is, independent of us, whereas the question of how we experience it will always be answered with a description of who we are. That Posthegemony is one of the most brilliant and important examples of Latin Americanist scholarship from the last decade or more is readily apparent. Less apparent, however, are the ways in which Posthegemony radicalizes, rather than repudiates, the identitarian logic that has been at the heart of Latin Americanist thought. It might be said, in other words, that the effort to convert meaning into experience—to think of “how things present themselves to us, not what they may represent”—is the essence of Latin Americanism itself.

To say that Posthegemony is fundamentally identitarian is not to say that it relies on any of the old, familiar identitarian categories or conceptions. Posthegemony operates radically outside the traditional categories or collectivities of identitarianism. For Beasley-Murray, identity is not fixed, but in a state of “constant flux” (127), not essentialized but infinitely heterogeneous, not bound up with the history of popular, regional, national, linguistic, cultural, or racial identities, but “radically open” (234). In other words, Beasley-Murray’s book seems on the surface to understand the world not in terms of “identities” but rather in terms of the “interactions of bodies” that actually “overflow any set identities,” and to imagine a future in which “singularities and partial objects, bodies of all shapes and sizes” would be transformed into “new experimental couplings and collectivities” (132). Given that Posthegemony insists that history is “no more or less than the recomposition or movement of bodies, a series of modulations in and through affect,” in which “bodies either coalesce or disintegrate” in the process of the “continuous variation that characterizes the infinite encounters between bodies,” it might even seem that Beasley-Murray offers up a vision of politics after identity (128). Indeed, it is Beasley-Murray’s hope that we might even be able to one day “liberate ourselves—from our selves” (132).

However, Posthegemony’s identitarianism is found neither in the way it substantializes identity—as popular, regional, national, linguistic, cultural, or racial—nor in the way it conceptualizes it—as embodied, performative, essential, contingent, or discursive.10 There can be little doubt that Posthegemony empties out such categories and goes beyond such theorizations. In their place, however, Posthegemony installs the fundamental logic of identity itself, stripped of its problematic substances or conceptualizations. Posthegemony’s identitarianism, in other words, is found in its replacement of ideology and meaning with affect.11

At the very heart of the political and theoretical project of Posthegemony is the repudiation of ideology (what people believe) and the affirmation of affect, which Beasley-Murray (relying on the work of Brian Massumi) defines as “the constant interactions between bodies and the resultant impacts of such interactions” (127). The “constant interactions” and “impacts” (127) of disintegrating and transmutating bodies, which Beasley-Murray argues are behind all “real workings of power and domination” (xii), are to be understood as fundamentally experiential, rather than ideological, since they take place “far beneath consciousness or ideology” (3). Social order, he argues, was “never in fact secured through ideology,” since “no amount of belief in the dignity of labor or the selfishness of elected representatives could ever have been enough to hold things together” (ix). But rather than claim that affect governs or influences ideology, Beasley-Murray “dispense[s] with the concept of ideology altogether” (177) in favor of “an affect that can do without either ideology or discourse” (30).

Beasley-Murray thus doesn’t need to explicitly make the claim, as he does, that “what matters is how things present themselves to us” rather than “what they may represent,” because without ideology, all that’s left is actually the question of “how things present themselves to us.” That question—about “how things present themselves to us”—can in turn only be answered with a description of who we are, especially given Beasley-Murray’s insistence on the idea that “no two bodies affect others in precisely the same ways” (128).12 The problem we face, however, when we abandon the question of what things represent and replace it with the question of “how things present themselves to us” is that disagreement becomes logically impossible.

We cannot disagree when we believe that there are merely different, equally valid ways of seeing and knowing the world and no singular truth or privileged way of knowing it. This is precisely the point Alberto Moreiras makes in The Exhaustion of Difference: The Politics of Latin American Cultural Studies (2001) when he remarks that “the positing of location as final redemption” on the part of “Latin American Latin Americanists” leads to a “dubious legitimation.”13 The “legitimation” involved in “the positing of location,” of course, is not inherently “dubious.” Instead, it becomes dubious when it comes hand in hand with critique or disagreement—as Moreiras notes, for “Latin American Latin Americanists” it was “location” that “always already delegitimized their outsiding others” (6). As Moreiras points out, “location” cannot “function simultaneously as a source of legitimation and its opposite” (6).14 If we are committed to the idea that where we are—or who we are—actually counts as a piece of evidence we can use to justify our beliefs as true, then it is not only dubious but also impossible to disagree with the beliefs of others. If our beliefs are true given who we are, then the same must be the case for everyone else’s. Moreiras thus implies that critique involves a radical choice: if “location” or identity is relevant to the truth of our claims, then there can be no critique—but if there is to be critique, it depends on thinking that the truth of our beliefs has nothing whatsoever to do with who we are. This, of course, is not to say that our identity doesn’t condition our beliefs or explain how we got them. I know, for example, that Ted Cruz and I have different identities and occupy different subject positions, but when I disagree with his claim that raising the minimum wage is a bad thing, I don’t care about his subject position—or mine. People can only disagree, in other words, when they believe that there is a truth about what something means, or about what something is, that is autonomous from their subjective experience of it.

Consider, for example, Beasley-Murray’s account of the FMLN (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional), a coalition of left-wing groups in El Salvador in the 1980s. Beasley-Murray argues that joining the FMLN involved “not the adoption of any specific set of beliefs, but a change in affective state”—indeed, he argues, “it involved a shift from the individualized subjectivity associated with opinion” to the “depersonalized commonality characteristic of affect” (139). Perhaps. To say that the “subjectivity” created was “depersonalized,” however, does not make this way of understanding the conflict between the FMLN and the Salvadoran government any less fundamentally identitarian. If joining the FMLN did not involve, as Beasley-Murray argues, “the adoption of any specific set of beliefs,” then the difference between members of the FMLN and the Salvadoran government is no longer different ideologies about agrarian reform, but rather different affective states that are reducible to different subject positions. Of course, we might have always known that different subjectivities were involved in conflicts, but Posthegemony, by repudiating ideology, makes all conflicts identitarian. That is because without ideology, there is no disagreement, only difference.

Beasley-Murray’s general replacement of ideology with affect would seem to have obvious implications for textual interpretation, and these are made explicit when he writes that the Requerimiento—the 1513 document that declared Spain’s dominion over the Americas—was not a “document that demanded interpretation” but was instead one of several “touchpapers for the violent explosion of imperial expansion” (5). Beasley-Murray argues that while Bartolomé de las Casas saw the conquistadors as “savages more dangerous than the indigenous peoples themselves,” he “failed to see that the Requerimiento channeled that affect” and “placed the lust for gold under the sign of a narrative of progress” (5). In other words, he argues, the “act of reading helped bind the affect mobilized in their hunt for gold, counteracting that affect’s centrifugal tendencies” (5). But that binding and counteracting of affect, Beasley-Murray suggests, was not a function of textual meaning. It instead worked through affect: the “invaders repeatedly intone these words that they themselves barely understand” and “become habituated to a ritual through which the Spanish state, even at a great distance, seeks to regulate their activities” (6). Indeed, the text became “a shibboleth whose signification was purely incidental” (5). Beasley-Murray must repudiate the question of meaning itself—make the text a shibboleth—in order to think of it in terms of the affective response it produces. But ultimately, and logically as he himself notes, this “displaces preoccupation with meaning” (207).

To be sure, the desire to think of texts as objects is closely related to the desire to think of them in terms of their affective powers. In Writing in the Air: Heterogeneity and the Persistence of Oral Tradition in Andean Literatures (1994), for example, the idea of the materiality of the text is key for Antonio Cornejo Polar’s “broad concept of literature that assumes a complete circuit of literary production, including the reception of the message.”15 Cornejo Polar begins by affirming a difference in Latin American literature itself, which proves the insufficiency of “classical philological instruments” to study it (13). But Cornejo Polar goes further: he produces a logic through which the experience of the reader is actually the only thing that counts by replacing “the book’s signifying function” with its status as an “object” (21). In similar fashion, Walter Mignolo writes in The Darker Side of the Renaissance: Literacy, Territoriality, and Colonization (1995) that “representation is a notion I have tried to avoid as much as possible in my argument.”16 The trouble with representation, Mignolo suggests, is that it “rests on a denotative philosophy of language according to which names represent things and maps represent territories” and, as such, presupposes the possibility of people knowing “a world outside themselves” (333).17 Mignolo associates that possibility—of knowing “a world outside themselves”—with hierarchies of culture and knowledge. For example, Mignolo argues, “a twentieth-century observer can surmise, when comparing an illuminated medieval codex or a wonderful Renaissance book to a painted Mexica codex, that while the latter is a piece to be admired, it cannot be put at the same level as the medieval codex” (334). However, if we look at the books not as representations or “visible signs,” but instead as “cultural objects” which result from “human needs,” then the hierarchical relation disappears (334). The objects cease to have meaning and are only read in terms of their participation in “activities” between individuals or groups (334). In other words, Mignolo makes it clear that cultural (or epistemic) dehierarchization, the abandonment of meaning, and the interest in textual materiality are all related forms of the same theoretical and political effort.18

This, however, should not give the impression that Latin American literature and criticism does not offer a valuable alternative model for textual meaning. In fact, Jorge Luis Borges’s “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” (1939) offers one of the best and most lucid theorizations to be found anywhere of the nature of literary interpretation. Borges’s famous story, of course, has most often been viewed as a text that points to the role of the reader in the making of meaning. Lisa Block de Behar, for example, claims that “Pierre Menard” is “one of the best statements in defense of the reader.”19 However, just the opposite is true. Borges’s story actually affirms that meaning has nothing whatsoever to do with either the reader or the context in which a text is read.

Borges’s story is about a French Symbolist poet named Pierre Menard who set out to write Don Quixote. Menard, Borges’s narrator tells us, “did not want to compose another Quixote—which is easy—but the Quixote itself.”20 In other words, Menard did not want to merely copy Cervantes’s novel; instead, he wanted to be its author. As Menard himself explains, “I have taken on the mysterious duty of reconstructing literally [Cervantes’s] spontaneous work” (41). In the end, Menard succeeds in producing verbatim versions of “the ninth and thirty-eighth chapters of the first part of Don Quixote and a fragment of chapter twenty-two” (39).

In Borges’s story, the theoretical questions asked and answered arise from the difference between Menard’s Quixote and Cervantes’s—whether there is one at all, and if so, how it is to be established. The story’s narrator compares Cervantes’s Don Quixote to Menard’s identical version and encounters “a revelation” (43). Despite the fact that the two texts are “verbally identical” (42), the narrator discovers that they are crucially different. He notes, for example, that in Menard’s version the language “suffers from a certain affectation,” while in Cervantes’s the author “handles with ease the current Spanish of his time” (43). The narrator then compares two identical passages: “truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counselor” (43).

Borges’s narrator dismisses the passage in Cervantes’s version as “a mere rhetorical praise of history,” but in Menard’s, he thinks “the idea is astounding” (43). Given that Menard was “a contemporary of William James,” the “final phrases,” he declares, “are brazenly pragmatic” (43). The reference to Menard’s lines as “pragmatic” is important because it underscores the account of beliefs the story puts forward. The difference between the two texts and their respective meanings in “Pierre Menard” is not grounded in anything objective, but only in a reader’s subjective belief about the truth of what each author intended. But rather than conclude that there can then be no true meanings, just the opposite happens. The narrator writes, “historical truth, for him, is not what happened; it is what we judge to have happened” (43), the point being not that there’s no such thing as historical truth, but instead that whatever we believe happened in the past is what we must also believe is the truth of what happened in the past. Borges’s story extends this maxim into the realm of interpretation, so that what a text means is what we judge its author to have intended it to mean.

In this way, Borges offers a version of Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels’s “Against Theory” (1982) avant la lettre.21 In their famous essay, Knapp and Michaels advance the claim that “what a text means is what its author intends.”22 (725). Indeed, Knapp and Michaels argue that the question of whether something is language or not is the question of whether or not it has an author. To even recognize something as language (and hence meaningful) in the first place, they argue, requires first “positing an author” (728). The question of what exactly language means, then, “will not involve adding a speaker but deciding among a range of possible speakers” (726). In fact, Borges’s story hinges on the narrator’s attribution of a text to different authors or “speakers”—after all, the story’s title, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” is itself the emphatic identification of an author. Thus the title of Borges’s story, as technically the very first part of it, begins by naming a text and identifying its author, as if to highlight the primacy of authorial intention to the question of meaning.

Borges’s narrator notes that it is “astounding” to compare the two texts: when Cervantes writes about “the curious discourse of Don Quixote on arms and letters,” the narrator sees sincerity (42). “Cervantes was a former soldier,” he notes, so his stance “against letters and in favor of arms” is “understandable” (41). But the same lines in Pierre Menard’s Don Quixote are ironic: Menard, claims the narrator, had the “habit of propagating ideas which were the strict reverse of those he preferred” (42). (It is worth noting here that to believe that what a text means is what its author intends does not depend on establishing that intention in terms of any author’s conscious or even explicit intentions, nor does it depend on what the author believes his or her intention is, either.) The two texts in question in Borges’ story are identical, and yet the narrator sees two different texts that mean two different things. It’s only because the narrator posits two different authors that this is possible: since the texts are identical, only something outside both the words on the page and the reader’s experience could justify thinking that there is a difference between the two. This is in part what Borges means when he qualifies a list of Pierre Menard’s work that does not include Don Quixote as merely his “visible work” (37). In the case of Menard’s Don Quixote, the work is invisible: it cannot be seen when the two texts are put side to side, and it is only because the narrator sees the text and then appeals to something that cannot be seen (i.e., Menard’s authorship) that Menard’s work can then be recognized and evaluated. If meaning were located in the words themselves, then there would be no way to distinguish between Cervantes’s “mere rhetorical praise of history” and Menard’s “brazenly pragmatic” lines (43).

Likewise, if meaning is made by the reader, then the difference between the two texts could never be the kind that Borges’s narrator identifies—”archaic” vs. “current,” for example (43)—which essentially derive from the difference between two authors and their intentions and not the difference between two contexts of reading, or two experiences of reading. Specifically, like in Cortázar text above, the differences would have to include everything that is part of the reader’s experience of them, including, for example, the typographical differences between Cervantes’s Don Quixote and Menard’s. A footnote at the end of the story remarks upon Menard’s “peculiar typographical symbols and his insect-like handwriting” (44). Borges’s narrator, moreover, emphasizes that “Cervantes’s text and Menard’s” are only “verbally identical,” not visually identical (42). If Borges’s point in the story were that the reader’s experience mattered to the question of meaning, then his narrator would have certainly had to take into account the visual differences that were undoubtedly part of his experience of the differences between the two texts. We can perhaps assume that Cervantes’s Quixote was printed, while Menard’s was written by hand. But the narrator emphasizes that Menard’s real work on his Quixote is invisible, which means that he has already decided that the visible or material differences between the two texts were irrelevant. The significance of this is easy to overlook, because we don’t normally attribute meaning to the particular appearance of an author’s handwriting in a manuscript, or even to the way the lines are broken in a piece of prose fiction. Likewise, we don’t normally assume that two verbally identical but visually different editions of the same text (with different fonts, or different line breaks) are in fact two different texts with two different meanings. The reason we do not usually count the line breaks in a novel, the font in a poem, or the page numbers at the bottom of a poem as meaningful is because we do not believe that the author intended them to be meaningful. To be sure, they are part of our experience of the text, but they are not part of the text itself, and this distinction is possible only because what the text actually is exists independent of our own experience of it.23

The idea of “context” as something that is relevant to meaning has regularly been affirmed in readings of “Pierre Menard.”24 Beatriz Sarlo, for example, declares that “Pierre Menard” highlights the ways in which “all new meanings arise from readings.”25 For Sarlo, “the process and the historical contexts of enunciation modify the meaning of signs, which emerges in the activity of reading-writing and is not tied to words themselves but instead to the context of the words” with the result that “the ideological and aesthetic production of the act of reading makes impossible repetition.”26 If it were true, however, that “repetition” is impossible in the “act of reading,” then no one could ever disagree about a text’s meaning, because no one would ever be reading the same text. The words might be the same, but the “context of the words,” to use Sarlo’s phrase, would be infinitely variable.

How can it make sense to suggest that the difference between the two Quixotes in Borges’s story is determined by context? Only after we have first posited an author can we go on to establish the historical context; without the appeal to an author, nothing in the text of Menard’s Quixote can give us the context that would change its meaning. In Borges’s story, meaning changes not when texts are moved to different contexts, but instead when they are attributed to different authors. That’s the point of what the narrator calls Menard’s “new technique” of “erroneous attribution” (44), which prompts the narrator himself to think about attributing “the Imitatio Christi to Louis Ferdinand” (44). It is only when “context” refers to the context of authorship and intention does this claim work, but then context becomes another way of talking about authorship and intention.

Borges not only emphasizes that the author’s intention is what matters, but also reveals that the reader—and the reader’s experience—doesn’t matter. If Borges wanted to affirm the role of the reader over the intention of the author, then the differences between Menard’s Quixote and Cervantes’s would be profoundly visible, not “invisible” as the narrator suggests. The differences would have to include any and all of the physical differences, intentional or not, between the two Quixotes. Without an appeal to the intention of the author of each text, the narrator would be left without a ground from which to decide what was meaningful and what was not in each text. Moreover, Menard’s “new technique” of reading by means of “erroneous attribution” would make no sense, since the very question of attribution would be rendered irrelevant.

If intention is what makes the visible differences between the two texts irrelevant for Borges’s narrator, it is also what makes him irrelevant. In the absence of the relevance of the reader, the reader’s experience, or “contexts,” meaning is fixed—indistinguishable from the author’s intention, and outside of us. To put it differently, when we believe that a text means something, we also believe that it would have meant that had we never existed; alternatively, when we change our beliefs about what a text means, we conclude that our previous belief was wrong, not that it was correct given who we were and the evidence that was available to us at the time. This points to the fact that meaning is independent of us and our experience—or the “context” in which we encounter the text. If that is true, then a belief about what a text means is also a belief about what it should mean for everyone. One of the frequently misunderstood aspects of the argument in “Against Theory” deals with the role beliefs play in interpretation. The fantasy of “theory,” argue Knapp and Michaels, is that there can be a model for interpretation that does not involve the interpreter’s beliefs (737). The idea that beliefs are essential to interpretation might lead some to conclude that true interpretations are impossible. Knapp and Michaels, however, argue that just because beliefs are subjectively produced “does not in any way weaken their claims to be true” (738). Quoting Stanley Fish, they rightly insist that if “one believes what one believes,” then “one believes that what one believes is true” (738).

The meaning of a text is thus never truly ours; what a text means is a belief about what is true outside of our experience. Alternatively, when we disagree about what a text means, the fact that we can disagree about it in the first place leads us to recognize the extent to which we think that “our” interpretation is in fact “the” interpretation. The point of “Pierre Menard” is not that we do not experience texts, or that texts do not produce affective responses in us. Instead, it is that experience, affective responses, and the identity of the reader are one thing and the meaning of a text is another.

It is hard to know whether embracing intention over affect would have any political consequences. My point has been, however, that one of these accounts of interpretation and meaning has been the correlative of a political project that is encountering its limits or exhaustion in neoliberalism. The fact that the most grievous differences in Latin America today are economic ones might seem to suggest that a politics committed to eliminating difference, rather than affirming it, is what we should seek. It is worth recalling, in conclusion, that at the end of his introduction to Subalternity and Representation: Arguments in Cultural Theory (1999), John Beverley refers to Borges’s “overtly reactionary politics,” and wonders whether “those politics” are “related to his function as a storyteller as well.”27 I would say that what Borges gives us is both a politics and, at least in “Pierre Menard,” a much-needed logic by which we can disagree with those politics and reject them.

Notes

1. John Beverley, Latin Americanism after 9/11 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 21. Further references appear in the text.
2. Charles R. Hale, “Does Multiculturalism Menace? Governance, Cultural Rights and the Politics of Identity in Guatemala,” Journal of Latin American Studies 34, no. 3 (2002): 493. Further references appear in the text.
3. Nancy Fraser, “Social Justice in the Age of Identity Politics: Redistribution, Recognition, and Participation,” in Redistribution or Recognition? A Political-Philosophical Exchange, eds. Nancy Fraser and Axel Honneth (London: Verso, 2003), 15. Further references appear in the text.
4. In his classic essay on Latin American testimonio from the late 1980s, John Beverley laments the fact that “our very notions of literature and the literary are bound up with notions of the author, or, at least, of an authorial intention” and celebrates testimonio because it “involves a sort of erasure of the function, and thus also of the textual presence, of the ‘author’” (Testimonio: On The Politics of Truth [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004], 35). Francine Masiello celebrates the poetry of Néstor Perlongher for the ways in which it challenges “lines of signification that have sustained rigid hierarchies of meaning” and makes language “physical to the detriment of meaning” (The Art of Transition: Latin American Culture and Neoliberal Crisis [Durham: Duke University Press, 2001], 70). Patrick Dove declares that “reading does not happen at the level of the narrator’s or writer’s intention, i.e., as the communication of information and meaning from writer to reader; rather, it takes place at those points of a story or history that exceeds the comprehension of the one who narrates” (The Catastrophe of Modernity: Tragedy and the Nation in Latin American Literature [Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2004], 230). Most recently, Erin Graff Zivin complains that readings of allegory tend to rely “on an outmoded understanding of, among other things, the idea of authorial intent, the transparency of language, and the link between signifier and signified” (Figurative Inquisitions: Torture and Truth in the Luso-Hispanic Atlantic [Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2014], 61). Graff Zivin proposes that we view a text’s allegorical meaning not as the function of the intention of the author but instead as the product of the desire of the reader: what makes a text allegorical, she argues, is that “the reader desires such a relationship” (62; italics in original).
5. Erin Graff Zivin, “Introduction: Reading Otherwise,” in The Ethics of Latin American Literary Criticism: Reading Otherwise, ed. Erin Graff Zivin (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 2.
6. See, for example, Diana Sorensen Goodrich, The Reader and the Text: Interpretative Strategies for Latin American Literatures (Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing, 1985).
7. Julio Cortázar, Blow-Up and Other Stories, trans. Paul Blackburn (New York: Random House, 1967), 64-65.
8. See Donald Davidson, “Objectivity and Practical Reason,” in Reasoning Practically, ed. Edna Ullman-Margalit (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 17-26. Davidson argues that “if people throw rocks or shout or shoot at each other, there is not necessarily, or perhaps even often, any proposition whose truth is in dispute” (21). A disagreement, he argues, “requires that there be some proposition, a shared content, about which opinions differ” (21). This, of course, runs counter to the account of disagreement famously offered by Jacques Rancière, for whom disagreement “is not the conflict between one who says white and another who says black” but rather “between one who says white and another who also says white but does not understand the same thing by it or does not understand that the other is saying the same thing in the name of whiteness” (Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy, trans. Julie Rose [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999], x).
9. Jon Beasley-Murray, Posthegemony: Political Theory and Latin America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), 205. Further references appear in the text.
10. In From Guilt to Shame: Auschwitz and After (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), Ruth Leys makes the point—in reference to the shame theories of Eve Sedgwick and Silvan Tomkins—that the effort to define “the individual as lacking a consolidated core personality and constituted instead by relationships between a multiplicity of affect and other assemblies of various degrees of independence and dependence” ultimately “makes no difference” to the fundamental commitment to the “primacy of identity and difference” (185-86). In other words, once we have replaced “an emphasis on what we have done or believe we have done with an emphasis on who we are,” we will be committed to the “primacy of identity and difference” regardless of whether we understand identity as “fixed and stable” or “plural, contingent, and open to change” (186).
11. See Ruth Leys, “The Turn to Affect: A Critique,” Critical Inquiry 37 (2011): 434-72. Leys suggests that “the disconnect between ‘ideology’ and affect produces as one of its consequences a relative indifference to the role of ideas and beliefs in politics, culture, and art in favor of an ‘ontological’ concern with different people’s corporeal-affective reactions” (451). Running parallel to this, notes Leys, is “a similar disconnect between meaning and affect,” which requires us to think of words not in terms of their meanings but instead as “mechanisms for producing [..] effects below the threshold of meaning and ideology” (451). For a compelling recent critique that focuses on the relationship between affective politics and the Left in Latin America, see Eugenio Di Stefano, “Reconsidering Aesthetic Autonomy and Interpretation as a Critique of the Latin American Left in Roberto Bolaño’s Estrella distante,Revista de Estudios Hispánicos 47, no. 3 (2013): 463-485. Di Stefano notes that the Left in Latin America has responded to the inequalities produced by neoliberal economic policies with “a stronger investment in one’s identity and the experiential position that informs it, a position that is irrelevant at best (and complicit at worst) when confronting the growing gap between rich and poor” (477). In the end, Di Stefano argues, the commitment to experience that characterizes so much recent Latin American literary and cultural theory “should be understood not in opposition to capitalism, but rather as a sign of the Left’s ultimate endorsement of the market” (477-78).
12. In From Guilt to Shame: Auschwitz and After, Leys’s point is that “the shift from guilt to shame” involves “a logic according to which if you think that the emotions, including shame, are to be understood in nonintentionalist terms, then you are also committed to the idea that they are to be defined in material terms, indeed that they are a matter of personal differences such that what is important is not what you have done, or imagined you have done, but who you are” (13). For Leys, the problem with the “shift from guilt to shame” is that it “replaces intentionalist accounts of guilt, in which the meaning of one’s real or fantasized actions is a central topic, with a nonintentionalist, materialist account of the emotions in which the issues of personal difference is the only question of importance” (186).
13. Alberto Moreiras, The Exhaustion of Difference: The Politics of Latin American Cultural Studies (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001), 6. Further references appear in the text.
14. See Emilio Sauri, “‘A la pinche modernidad’: Literary Form and the End of History in Roberto Bolaño’s Los detectives salvajes,” MLN 125, no. 2 (2010): 406-432. At the end of his article, Sauri discusses Moreiras’s concept of “savage hybridity,” and argues that it is not “a means toward overcoming the problem of the subject’s position in relation to the object” but instead a means of “preserving its primacy” (428). Sauri wonders whether Moreiras’s “perspectival or relational subalternism” puts “the problem of the subject (and his or her position) before the truth of politics (the belief in a particular ideology)” in a way that might ultimately reduce “questions about political beliefs (what one believes) to questions about perspective (where one stands)” (429).
15. Antonio Cornejo Polar, Writing in the Air: Heterogeneity and the Persistence of Oral Tradition in Andean Literatures, trans. Lynda J. Jentsch (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013), 14. Further references appear in the text.
16. Walter Mignolo, The Darker Side of the Renaissance: Literacy, Territoriality, and Colonization (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995), 331. Further references appear in the text.
17. For a short critique of the idea that making a true claim about the world necessarily involves people being able to stand outside themselves, see Stanley Fish, “A Reply to J. Judd Owen,” American Political Science Review 93, no. 4 (December 1999): 925-30. The fact that we cannot justify our epistemic system from outside of it, Fish argues, should not lead us to conclude that the beliefs that emerge from our epistemic system might somehow not be true. If “our convictions cannot be grounded in any independent source of authority,” it does not mean “our convictions are ungrounded” (925-26). On the contrary, Fish argues that the “unavailability of independent grounds—of foundations that are general and universal rather than local and contextual—is fraught with no implications at all” (926). “It turns out,” Fish writes, “that not only are the grounds that are ours by virtue of the resources a lifetime has given us sufficient […] but also they are superior to the independent grounds no one has ever been able to find” (926). See also Roger Trigg, Reason and Commitment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973).
18. See Jennifer Ashton, From Modernism to Postmodernism: American Poetry and Theory in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005). Ashton argues that “when words become marks […] we have no choice but to experience them because—if we want to continue to apprehend them as material objects—we can no longer continue to think of ourselves as reading them. That is, we can no longer think of ourselves as reading them because we can no longer think of them as language” (92).
19. Lisa Block de Behar, A Rhetoric of Silence and Other Selected Writings (The Hague: Mouton de Gruyter, 1995), 48. Block de Behar’s position represents the dominant critical tendency with regard to “Pierre Menard.” Carlos Alonso (in “Borges y la teoría,” MLN 120, no. 2 [2005]: 437-56) is one of the few critics to recognize that the story hinges not on the change of contexts of reading, but instead on the replacement of one author for another (445-46). Thus if “Pierre Menard” is essentially about “what happens when we begin a process of reading with Menard in the place previously occupied by Cervantes,” the closing of the story, with what is “essentially an scene of reading and interpretation,” is the answer to that question (446). The answer, Alonso correctly argues, “is that nothing is the same” because the narrator produces an “impeccable reading of the fragment from the first part of Don Quixote that is no less convincing and “correct” than previous interpretations that presumed that Cervantes was the author of the novel” (445). For Alonso, “to read the Quixote we must first create the figure of an author in order to decode the text” (445). “We are used to using a figure that we know by the name of ‘Cervantes’ in that procedure,” Alonso notes, but “it becomes clear that another authorial figure” can occupy that place, which means everything changes (446).
20. Jorge Luis Borges, Labyrinths: Selected Stories & Other Writings, eds. Donald Yates and James E. Irby (New York: New Directions, 1964), 39 (italics in original). Further references appear in the text.
21. See Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels, “Not a Matter of Interpretation,” San Diego Law Review 42, no. 2 (2005): 651-68. “Pierre Menard” is briefly invoked in the service of a critique of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s “textualist” theory of statutory interpretation. It goes without saying, of course, that “Pierre Menard” has over the years been invoked to support—avant la lettre—a wide range of claims and theoretical perspectives. See, for example, Emir Rodríguez Monegal, “Borges and Derrida: Apothecaries,” in Borges and His Successors: The Borgesian Impact on Literature and the Arts, ed. Edna Aizenberg (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1990), 128-38; Arthur Danto, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981); George Steiner, After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992); Rosemary Arrojo, “Translation, Transference, and the Attraction to Otherness—Borges, Menard, Whitman,” Diacritics 34, no. 3/4, (2004): 31-53; N. Katherine Hayles, “Translating Media: Why We Should Rethink Textuality,” The Yale Journal of Criticism 16, no. 2 (2003), 263-90; Diana I. Pérez, “The Ontology of Art: What Can We Learn from Borges’s ‘Menard?’“ CR: The New Centennial Review 11, no. 1 (2011): 75-89.
22. Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels, “Against Theory,” Critical Inquiry 8 (1982): 725. Further references appear in the text. My arguments here in general are obviously indebted to those made by Michaels in The Shape of the Signifier: 1967 to the End of History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004). In particular, see Michaels’s discussion of the ways in which seeing “difference as disagreement makes the subject position of the observer irrelevant (since to disagree with someone is to produce a judgment that, if it is true is true also for the person with whom you disagree—that’s why we think of ourselves as disagreeing)” while seeing “difference without disagreement makes the subject position essential (since to differ without disagreeing is nothing more than to occupy a different position)” (32).
23. For an argument to the contrary, see Jerome McGann’s The Textual Condition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991). See also the responses to the Knapp and Michaels argument in Against Theory: Literary Studies and the New Pragmatism, ed. W.J.T. Mitchell (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982).
24. Enrique Sacerío-Gari argues that “Pierre Menard” affirms not a distinction between “the actions of producers and the reactions of consumers,” but the opposite (“Towards Pierre Menard,” MLN 95, no. 2 [1980]: 467). See also Gérard Genette, Palimpsests: Literature in the Second Degree, trans. Channa Newman and Claude Doubinsky (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997). For Genette, “Borges succeeded in demonstrating with the imaginary example of Pierre Menard that the mere displacement of context turns even the most literal rewriting into a creation” (17).

25. Beatriz Sarlo, Borges, un escritor en las orillas (Mexico City: Siglo XXI, 2007), 57; translation mine.

26. Ibid. See also Sergio Waisman, Borges and Translation: The Irreverence of the Periphery. (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2005). Waisman makes a similar argument when he suggests that “Pierre Menard” teaches us “that through changes in the context, even the same words in the same language can gain entirely new meanings—and that this can occur, paradoxically, without necessarily losing the old meanings” (15).
27. John Beverley, Subalternity and Representation: Arguments in Cultural Theory (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999), 24.

 

 

 

 

About the Author

Charles Hatfield is Associate Professor of Latin American Studies at The University of Texas at Dallas. His first book, on the ideological underpinnings and political consequences of Latinoamericanismo, is forthcoming from the University of Texas Press in 2015.


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