I Pay No Attention: Autonomy and Latin Americanism in The Vanishing Frame
Many of us are familiar with the ending of Jorge Luis Borges’s “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” in which the world is being taken over by a man-made universe turned real, in a now too clear reference to Nazism: “Then English and French and mere Spanish will disappear from the globe. The world will be Tlön.”1 The story, however, contains one more line, not as well-known, but perhaps more significant to the real meaning behind the narration: “I pay no attention to all this and go on revising, in the still days at the Adrogue hotel, an uncertain Quevedian translation (which I do not intend to publish) of Browne’s Urn Burial.”2 In the narrator’s lack of interest about what is happening in the world outside, it is possible to read Borges’s defense of the autonomy of art as a political position. The main character spends his time translating Browne’s Ciceronian sentences into the style of a Baroque Spanish writer. Not only is this not the most commercially viable literary work, but the translator is not interested in publishing it. His possible readers and their experience, who are also part of the outside world, are irrelevant for the construction of this autonomous work of art. A version of this political position is emerging, Eugenio Di Stefano argues in his book The Vanishing Frame, in contemporary Latin American arts and letters as a reaction to the neoliberal era.3
Di Stefano begins his study with a reading of Roland Barthes’s well-known essay, “The Death of the Author” (1967), treating it as an early example of a mode of thought that has contributed to the emergence of human rights discourse. According to Di Stefano, Barthes is arguing that the meaning of a literary text is not determined by its author, but by “the reader’s experience.” We all know that Barthes’s article is an important theoretical document for reader response criticism, but where we read “response,” Di Stefano sees identity politics: “This ‘birth’ [of the reader] must incorporate the reader’s position, a position that includes not only what one sees, hears, or feels but also the identities or other cultural markers that inform who one is … Regardless of whatever cultural marker one chooses, the point of the primacy of the subject position is that it will be informed chiefly by a series of experiences that will determine how one sees the text” (9). The shift in this quote from the reader’s position to subject position is important because Barthes’s privileging of the reader, as well as identity politics, are “symptomatic of a larger political project that renders ideological disagreements irrelevant—disagreements that may, in fact, serve to undermine the neoliberal world order” (8). Barthes’s theory is then a cultural manifestation of an economic tendency, a sort of cultural attempt to pave the way for the effective functioning of neoliberalism. Di Stefano takes this essay to represent the reaction to the demise of the Cold War, out of which human rights politics arose. It is not surprising that Di Stefano chooses Barthes and not other proponents of reader response theory to make his claim. After all, critics like Hans Robert Jauss and Stanley Fish, for example, emphasize the readers’ experience as occurring within a community or horizon that sets limits to interpretation. But I think a similar claim can be made about Barthes’s notion of the “reader.” The idea originally resulted from the work Barthes had been doing attacking traditional French literary criticism (see his Criticism and Truth), which was still focused on finding a stable meaning coming from a unique consciousness (the “Author” Barthes wants to see “dead”). Barthes sees the meaning of a text as the result of intertextuality, of a web of previously written words and texts. Neither the author nor the reader can fix the meaning of the text, not because each one of their “subject positions” is valid, but because of intertextuality, because the text is the product of a web of references, already written ideas and connections—not extra-textual aspects. However, as mentioned above, for Di Stefano, Barthes’s essay is only one of the cultural manifestations that announce a new “post Cold War ideological division” and the emergence of human rights politics (117). My argument that Barthes is not really talking about identity politics in his essay does not deny that Di Stefano’s observations about the cultural shift taking place at the time are correct.
Following his reading of Barthes, Di Stefano employs the term “subject position” throughout his book to refer to the idea that “what we see, hear, and experience is essential” and acquires primacy over ideological disagreements (10). He subsumes a wide variety of contemporary theories and modes of understanding culture (e.g., cultural studies, disability studies, deconstruction, and affect theory) under this label, and shows, successfully I think, how their practice contributes to strengthening our neoliberal reality. What does this have to do with Latin America? Di Stefano’s book focuses on what is called the postdictatorial period, roughly speaking the period of transition in South America from the dictatorships of the 1970s to the transition to democracy. Critics have long pointed out that this transition was in reality a transition to a “postmodern,” neoliberal system of government. Di Stefano intends to go a bit further, suggeststing that Latin American postmodernism in art and literature during this time takes on aesthetic characteristics that not only helped to usher in the new era, but were also compatible with the neoliberal logic. In other words, the postmodern Latin American discourse espoused by critics and artists before, during, and after the postdictatorship, instead of presenting an alternative to neoliberalism, has contributed to its dominance. Whereas in the United States the primacy of the subject position has become associated with identity politics, in Latin America it has served to establish a discourse of human rights that is compatible with the reigning economic system and undermines any efforts to eliminate the gap between rich and poor.
In the first part of the book, Di Stefano focuses on what he calls the politics or aesthetics of experience that emerges in the postdictatorial period, which, as we will see, focuses on blurring the distance between the characters in the texts (or their representations in art) and the reader or spectator, so that the latter can share the experience of the former. But there is hope and, in the second part of his book, Di Stefano argues that just as there is an aesthetics of experience that can be associated with neoliberalism—or somehow produced by neoliberalism—there is also an aesthetic position that can be employed for the critique of neoliberalism. The works of Roberto Bolaño, Fernando Botero and Alejandro Zambra become examples of how to create a work of art that can also be the “point of departure for an anticapitalist politics today” (12). These artists reject the aesthetics of experience by insisting on the autonomy of art and emphasizing the “frame” that separates art from reality.
The first chapter studies the structure of a misreading: a series of critics have read a text wrongly but are unable to see that they are doing that. In fact, these critics believe they are celebrating a text that promotes the ideology of human rights, when, far from doing that, the text is actually committed to traditional notions of ideology that the politics of human rights aim to undermine. The chapter revolves around Uruguayan Mario Benedetti’s play Pedro y el capitán (and its interpretations) as an example of the literature of the dictatorship/early postdictatorship period. The play is about the conversation between a political prisoner and the military official supervising his torture. Di Stefano points out that literary critics have generally chosen to focus on the topics of torture and pain, ignoring the obvious fact that the play gives “primacy to the verbal argument between Pedro and the Captain rather than show the Captain beating, prodding, and sodomizing Pedro” (27). There are several elements at play in this analysis of critical reception, and they are all important for Di Stefano’s argument later in the book. Why have the critics misread this play? The act of misreading has as much to do with the critics’ place of origin as it does with the changing conditions of politics in the region. On the one hand, the conflict between communism and capitalism that spurred the socialist revolutionary movements of the 1960s has given way to an (less ideologically problematic) antagonism between liberal democracy and dictatorship. Organizations like Amnesty International emerged during this period and exercised a strong influence in redirecting attention from fundamental ideological differences and class conflict to the injustice of torture and protecting the victims’ bodies. On the other hand, even though Di Stefano does not emphasize this, the readers he is criticizing in the chapter (Marjorie Agosín, Idelber Avelar) are United States-based Latin American literary cultural critics, and their analyses of the play might be disconnected from what Benedetti was attempting to achieve (he never meant to emphasize the body over ideology, as Di Stefano clearly shows) as well as how his Uruguayan audience understood the play. They represent a contemporary postmodern discourse that, like the human rights ideology, is responding to a neoliberal economic reality that is taking over. Di Stefano’s challenge in the next chapters is to show how not only United States-based critics, but also Latin American authors themselves, began to adopt and express in their texts what he calls the moral utopia of human rights.
A similar critical structure is employed in the second chapter. Once again, Di Stefano studies how cultural critics’ emphasis on the body and identity makes them lose sight of the importance of political ideology. The chapter opens with a description of how the military regimes treated and produced disabled bodies during the dictatorship era. The study now focuses on a period of transition during the 1990s, when a series of works appear in which the topic of disability takes center stage and the political focus shifts to the injustice of excluding corporeal difference. Di Stefanoemploys Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden, whose main character is affected by “hysteria” or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as representative of this group of writings. In Benedetti’s play, studied in the previous chapter, Di Stefano noticed the dissonance between the cultural critics’ readings and the actual intentions of the author. In Dorfman’s play, as well as in the other examples from film and fiction that appear throughout this chapter, the Latin American artists have embraced an ideology of inclusion that “renders irrelevant a past political project that sought to eliminate the divide between rich and poor” (49). In arguing for the need to include as part of the nation those who are discriminated against for who they are—not only because of disability, but also gender and race—these writers inadvertently imagine “injustice principally as a form of exclusion from the market,” not as a form of exploitation (51). The second part of this chapter focuses on another use of disability celebrated by Latin American cultural critics. In some literary texts, the depiction of disability becomes a sort of “artistic device” whose aim is to “disrupt representation.” Representing reality from the perspective of some types of disability becomes a narrative strategy to avoid mimesis. Challenging cultural critics like Nelly Richard, who believe that “representation is something that we must move beyond in order to produce a more effective politics” (57), Di Stefano questions the “indeterminacy” of meaning embraced by postmodern writers and critics and their claim that this is somehow more radical than human rights discourses. It is not, like these critics want to believe, a real alternative to the market or a rejection of the neoliberal logic. Di Stefano’s attack on those who look for alternatives to realism and representation, however, does not mean that he endorses realism as an aesthetic solution. In later chapters, he explains the type of art form that he considers can effectively be used as a critique of the market.
The third chapter studies the role of memory in the fiction from the period of transition to full democracy. Di Stefano distinguishes it from the previous period, in which memory served as a way of recovering what the official history wanted to erase. What he notices in this period, instead, is that the use of memory has metamorphosed, and writers and critics insist on “a vision of the world that turns political ideologies of the past into affirmations of one’s subject position” (62). This is the chapter where one finds Di Stefano’s most convincing readings, especially in the case of Mauricio Rosencof’s Las cartas que no llegaron. The main character in the novel is in prison because of his role as a member of the Tupamaros, the left-wing guerrilla group active in Uruguay during the 1960s and 1970s, but instead of reflecting on his political ideology, the narration focuses on his efforts to recover his Jewish heritage. The analysis in this chapter bolsters Di Stefano’s case that South American writers are beginning to focus on identity and ignoring the ideological positions of the past. However, he is not the first to have noticed the growing influence of identity politics in Latin American literature, and the second part of the third chapter consists of a reading of Latin American cultural critics who have also noticed that “blood memory” (using memory to recover one’s identity) is compatible with contemporary democratic liberalism and the free market, and have proposed alternative views of memories. As in other chapters, Di Stefano finds that the discourse of Latin Americanist cultural critics unwittingly continues to promote neoliberalism instead of alternatives to it. In this case he studies the alternatives that Gabriela Nouzeilles and Luis Martín-Cabrera present to the notion of memory. The intention of their projects, which make use of the idea of the ghost or the desaparecido, is to imagine “a form of transmission of memory that is located in culture,” thus forming a more radical subject (71-72). But for Di Stefano this approach fails because it still “demands that we perceive (and conceive) politics—even radical politics—as something that is passed on rather than learned,” which is how we should get our political beliefs (75).
And then we get to the crucial second part of the book, in which Di Stefano shifts his attention to artists who are challenging the emphasis on human rights and identity politics that dominated postdictatorship art and are focusing instead on aesthetic autonomy. Di Stefano’s critical strategy is mostly still the same—attacking the postmodern discourse of Latin American cultural criticism—except now he must convince us not so much that other readings are wrong, but that his interpretation is correct. The first part of this chapter focuses on Fernando Botero’s series of paintings about the events that took place in the Abu Ghraib prison. Here the challenge for Di Stefano is double: on the one hand, Botero is from Colombia, a country which, like most of the nations in the Latin American region, does not share the same postdictatorial period as those in the Southern Cone, and, on the other, the subject of Botero’s painting is a series depicting human rights abuses. This first problem is never addressed—not only that, the chapter will double down on this strategy later on when Di Stefano includes testimonio authors from Central America to draw conclusions about the South American postdictatorial period. Di Stefano solves the second one by arguing that Botero is not interested in denouncing human rights abuses but “in asserting a space of aesthetic form,” in making the viewers think about the autonomy of art in relation to politics. The Colombian artist does this, we are told, when he highlights certain actions of the figures in the paintings. For example, Di Stefano notices the absence of perpetrators, and the presence of figures who are never looking or are denying the presence of the beholder. Botero’s deemphasizing of the role of the witness in his paintings becomes a model to critique the Latin American scholarship on the testimonio genre, which “has insisted on imagining a world in which the beholder is a ‘direct witness’ who must envision all injustices through the lens of human rights” (88). The second section of the chapter has a familiar look: cultural critics are criticized for holding on to the fantasy that readers can bear witness to the human rights abuses described by the subaltern subjects in these accounts. Thus, once again, Di Stefano is able to contrast experience with interpretation. The latter is only possible with aesthetic forms that do not engage the fantasy of direct experience resulting from identity politics. However, in this reading of testimonio it is never clear if Di Stefano is arguing that this genre is being misinterpreted by cultural critics (who are simply trying to impose a political discourse, forcing the subalterns to report their life stories), or if there is something in the structure of the testimonio that is actually a reflection of the neoliberal period.
In the next chapter (Chapter 5), Bolaño takes Botero’s place. His work, specifically the novel Estrella distante, is read as a Latin American cultural product that rejects “contemporary postdictatorial thought,” resisting postmodern attacks on aesthetic autonomy and intentionalism. And instead of the testimonio genre targeted in the previous chapter, the artistic movement representing the postmodern discourse of experience and anti-representation is the neo-avant-garde movement Colectivo Acciones de Arte (CADA) in Chile. I will not try to summarize Di Stefano’s nuanced reading of the novel, but I would like to call attention to his analysis of one of the main characters, Carlos Wieder, Bolaño’s avant-garde artist. In Di Stefano’s reading, Wieder’s artistic stunts (writing poems across the skies, a photography exhibit of the corpses of people he has tortured and killed) are poetic acts meant to emphasize the difference, from a critical point of view, between experience and interpretation. In contrast to critics who understand Wieder’s acts as typical of the avant-garde desire to eliminate the distinction between art and life, Di Stefano takes them to mean something else. If Wieder’s poetic act provokes “a response in the beholder, it does so in part because Wieder’s intention is to create an aesthetic object that produces that intended effect, which, undoubtedly, is part of its aesthetic meaning” (108). Wieder’s commitment is to creating artwork regardless of the public’s relation to his creations. If instead of focusing on intention we are concerned with how art makes us feel, or how each response to art is equally valid, explains Di Stefano, then we are unable to see Wieder’s political position, his intention to create art that endorses Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorial regime.
A similar contrast is set up in the last chapter of The Vanishing Frame, when Di Stefano compares Bonsái (2006), the work of Chilean author Zambra, to Manuel Puig’s classic novel of the South American dictatorships, El beso de la mujer araña (1976). The central aspect of the comparison is the use of metafiction in both novels, but with entirely different aims. Whereas Puig was attacking the notion of aesthetic autonomy as dangerous because it detaches art from the world, Zambra’s use of metafiction, for Di Stefano, makes him a model to imitate in future postdictatorial fiction. What follows in this chapter is a detailed reading of Zambra’s techniques, which supposedly keep the readers focused on the aesthetic space created by the author. Di Stefano stresses the difference between the novel as an aesthetic object and its distance from nonaesthetic objects. Metafiction in Bonsái is not aimed at erasing the distinction between fiction and reality because “Zambra’s text doesn’t seem to care about the real world in the least” (124).
As in the other chapters, Di Stefano is interested in criticizing another version of Latin American poststructuralist/postmodern criticism that, while looking for alternatives to the dominance of capitalism, ends up defending a discursive position that is actually in agreement with neoliberal tendencies. On this occasion the target is affect theory, which he sees as the latest manifestation of a postmodern alternative to the traditional discourses of ideology. Unlike other theories discussed previously, affect theory cannot be reduced to—and attacked for—simply wanting to blur the distinction between art and nonart. Affect theory is looking for a critical position outside of ideology, history, politics; it is looking for processes outside the ideological grid. What is important for affect theorists is the materiality of literature, that is, literature as an object that presents itself to us, not its status. Affect theory’s position toward art results from the fact that this theory is responding to the conditions created by late capitalism. In other words, focusing on the materiality of literature is an attempt to escape the commodification of all objects resulting from the triumph of the consumer culture. Here it becomes clear—I think—why Di Stefano needs his detour through affect theory before concluding his study: he needs to explain how affect theory’s definition of the status of art in a consumer society is superseded by the notion of autonomy that he is proposing, and of which Bonsái is an example. For Di Stefano, even in the aftermath of neoliberalism’s triumph, the autonomous work of art is not just another object or commodity because it possesses an artistic intention, unlike other material objects: “This assertion of meaning—that is, the assertion of understanding art as irreducible to the commodity form—is also a turn away from the neoliberal vision that is centered on the consumer and his or her interest” (134).
As hinted above in my description of the chapter on Botero and testimonio literature, one of the minor problems with this book is the desire to extend the term “postdictatorial period” to cover the entire region. The postdictatorial period has been traditionally linked to the shared history of the countries from the Southern Cone of Latin America (Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Brazil, and Paraguay), which experienced similar dictatorial governments during most of the 1970s and began to transition to democracy in the 1980s. The history of Guatemala or Colombia during these decades is completely different, and to include it under the “postdictatorial” term would be tantamount to flattening the complex political reality of Latin America. However, my major concern is that for a book that is trying to re-establish the value of the autonomy of art as a political weapon, in The Vanishing Frame there is no discussion of the rich history of autonomy in Marxist and Critical Theory traditions. There are brief mentions of Bertolt Brecht’s concept of theatre and Peter Bürger’s Theory of the Avant-Garde, but the attacks on postmodern subjective representations of reality as politically inefficient in the book remind one of the Bloch-Lukács debate, especially the chapter on disability and representation. And Di Stefano’s description of aesthetic autonomy resembles so much Theodor Adorno’s defense of modern art that it would be extremely helpful to know how his view of autonomy is different or politically more effective. In general, we are left with too many questions regarding the description of autonomy as a rejection of neoliberalism. If metafiction is a characteristic of both postmodern authors’ and Zambra’s writings, how are readers supposed to recognize the difference, when even many literary critics see Zambra’s book as typical of postmodern literature? The problem perhaps lies in the fact that the concept of autonomy can be used to defend diametrically opposed political ideologies. In “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” Borges’s call for an autonomous aesthetic was meant to be read as critique of a Nazi ideology he felt was invading every aspect of reality. Years later, however, unable to understand Peronism, his autonomous art became a defense of a Spencerian individualism against any government trying to “shape” society, especially if this shaping meant trying to bridge the gap between rich and poor. He happily supported dictatorships while writing autonomous works of art that, like the main character in his story or Zambra’s novel, to use Di Stefano’s description, did not “seem to care about the real world in the least.”
There is no doubt in my mind that The Vanishing Frame is one of the most important theoretical works of criticism to be published in the field of Latin American literature in the last few years. Not only because it is successful in its critique of the connection between human rights politics and the emergence of a neoliberal period in South America, but also because, in the process, it gives us a reading of the evolution of Latin Americanism since the end of the last century. Furthermore, I think that many of the critiques and questions I have posed in the previous paragraph are the result of an authorial strategy. In other words, as opposed to the Latin Americanists discussed and critiqued in his study for appropriating postmodern theoretical concepts, Di Stefano is trying to come up with a version of artistic autonomy that originates in his reading of Latin American texts, not in European theories. I have many questions, but I am sure Di Stefano will find answers to them in his future research.