Making it Visible: Latin Americanist Criticism, Literature, and the Question of Exploitation Today
Vision is meaning. Meaning is historical.
—True Detective (2014)
The Missing Frame
At the center of Pedro Mairal’s novel The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra (2008) is an enormous painting, “four kilometers long” (MY31/S38), which the eponymous, mute artist, Juan Salvatierra, painted over the course of sixty years.1 Recalling various styles of art, including “art brut,” post-impressionism, and Japanese “emakimono” (MY8/S9), the painting chronicles Salvatierra’s life in Barrancales, a fictional village located on the Argentine side of the River Uruguay. The narrator, Salvatierra’s son Miguel, returns with his brother Luis to Barrancales two years after their father has passed away to decide what to do with the painting, now stored as more than sixty individual rolls of canvas hanging from the roof beams of the shed where he painted every day. The brothers quickly realize “It would have been impossible to exhibit the entire canvas in one place” (MY21/S28) because the “canvas had no borders, even at the end of each roll: they all fit exactly with the start of the next one.” “If he could have,” Miguel continues, “Salvatierra would have kept them all together in one vast scroll, although it would have been impossible to take care of it or transport it” (MY24/S30). But if the size of what Salvatierra had intended to be grasped as “one vast scroll” complicates any decision about exhibiting the painting, the absence of any “borders” also raises larger questions about the nature of the work itself and its relationship to the beholder. Where could one stand to look at the painting in its entirety? How could one begin to understand this scroll if one could never see the work in its totality? Can these scrolls really be understood as a painting if they can never be observed together? When do paint and canvas become a painting?
These questions have everything to do with painting as a specific medium, though we will see that, in raising such questions, The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra (from here on, Salvatierra) gestures to a concern that has been crucial to the development of Latin Americanist literary criticism and theory for some time now: the concern with the text’s relationship to the world and to its reader. This concern becomes all the more apparent in Mairal’s novel when Salvatierra’s son tells us that, “Possibly because of this sense of the limitless flow of nature that the canvas had, I find it hard to call it a painting, because that suggests a frame, a border that surrounds certain things, and that’s precisely what Salvatierra wanted to avoid” (MY54/S67-8). Importantly, the expansiveness of a canvas that appears “to flow on forever” (MY18/S21) gives rise to an impression of boundlessness that not only compels Mairal’s narrator to wonder whether the four kilometers of canvas are, in fact, a painting, but also precipitates the sensation that “you might plunge headfirst into the canvas” (MY76/S99).2 Mairal’s novel thus presents the conception of an artwork for which representing reality is less appealing than consuming or even becoming it, thereby calling to mind something like Borges’ cartographers who create a “Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it”; a map, in other words, for which the difference between the Empire and a representation of it ceases to matter altogether.3
This conception of art, however, is not just limited to fiction; and indeed, it also underlies a dominant strain of Latin Americanist thought that comprises the focus of this essay, and for which this unframing has been conceived as a point of departure for a host of theoretical positions not just on art, nor on literature alone, but on politics as well. These positions include the testimonio criticism, affect theory, postautonomy, and posthegemony. Despite apparent differences between these, we argue that what has unified Latin Americanist criticism and theory at least since the 1980s, is this question of the frame, or more precisely, the effort to imagine how the text dissolves it. We can begin to see what this looks like, for example, in Néstor García Canclini’s claim that art “became ‘unframed’ because…the attempts to organize it in terms of aesthetic prescriptions or a theory about the autonomy of the fields (Bourdieu) or of worlds (Becker) hardly work.”4 The frame is posed here as a matter of categories or criteria that have long defined literature and literary criticism, but primarily with an eye to marking their obsolescence. As for politics, Latin American studies has tended to characterize the investment in such categories and criteria as radically conservative, working even, as Jean Franco suggested in 1979, in the “service of reactionary governments.”5
But if Mairal’s novel raises questions about the frame’s dissolution, it also prompts us to reconsider what the political meaning of the assertion of the frame might be. And it does this by presenting another conception of Salvatierra’s canvas that openly undermines the identification of the artwork with unframed experience, and the idea of the work as reality paralleled in Borges’ anecdote. This other conception emerges shortly after the brothers discover that the roll Salvatierra painted in 1961 is missing. Miguel becomes determined to find it, not only because “If one part was missing, [he] wouldn’t be able to take it all in its entirety” (MY77/S100), but also because recovering the missing roll would mean that “this world of images would have a limit.” “The infinite would reach an end,” he thinks, “and I could discover something he hadn’t painted. Something of my own” (MY77/S101). Thus, Salvatierra’s son suggests that finding the missing roll of canvas would not simply complete the painting, but produce a “limit” capable of drawing a “border” (MY54/S67-8) between the canvas and the world Miguel inhabits as he looks at it, and so locating Salvatierra’s missing year would mean introducing the “frame” (MY54/S67-8) that the canvas’s “limitless flow” (MY54/S67-8) ostensibly dissolves.6
That Miguel associates this border earlier with his own definition of a “painting” further suggests that such a frame would not only render legible the distinction between the images on the canvas and the world these depict, but also that this frame is what makes the painting a painting—that is, what makes the work contiguous with but not identical to the reality it depicts. As we will see, however, the novel’s attention to the frame will not only entail a refusal of the artwork’s reducibility to the world, but also—and perhaps more importantly—mark an insistence on the irrelevance of the beholder’s experience to both the question of what is or isn’t part of the painting and to what it means. And if attending to the frame is a way of marking the distance between the world represented on the canvas and Miguel’s experience of it, it will also turn out to be a way of stressing the irrelevance of the experience and subject position of the viewer to the artwork’s meaning. Indeed, insofar as the completion of the image, what Salvatierra identifies as the frame, functions as a “border” that presupposes a distance between painting and beholder, the novel also suggests that its absence will ultimately transform the work into an occasion for the subject’s experience of boundlessness and limitlessness, the sensation, in other words, that “you might plunge headfirst into the canvas” (MY76/S99).7
Thus, Salvatierra presents us with two conceptions of the same work: one that tries to incorporate, and in this sense, is the world, and another that aims to represent it. The distinction between these conceptions not only asks us to consider the relationship between, say, a tree in Salvatierra’s painting and a tree outside of it, but also foregrounds the issue of the beholder’s relationship to the painting as well. The choice between the framed painting and unframed experience is, in this sense, what Michael Fried has described as the distinction between art and objecthood, a distinction which requires us to consider “whether the paintings or objects in question are experienced as paintings or as objects.”8 And yet, this essay not only asks why a novel like Salvatierra might want to revisit the concept of the frame, now virtually absent from contemporary discussions in criticism and theory, but also attempts to demonstrate what this absence has meant to the development of Latin Americanist discourses on culture and politics. Thus, tracing this development through key concepts that have come to define Latin Americanist criticism and theory, including postautonomy, the postaesthetic, and posthegemony, we argue that the assertion of the frame is central to both literature and politics today.
In contrast, contemporary Latin American studies points to a particular configuration of art’s relationship to politics and the market, but one which is predicated on a repudiation of the distinction between literary and non-literary objects, predicated, in other words, on the elimination of the frame. For reasons that will become clear, moreover, this configuration finds its origins in a transformation in the global structure of exploitation, one which has animated a political concern with categories like exclusion, but which in so doing, has ultimately oriented political theory away from the critique of this same economic structure. Latin Americanist criticism and theory can, in this sense, be said to participate in what Walter Benn Michaels has identified as the invisibility of the frame within postmodern and poststructuralist accounts of the text and the work of art that is doubled by another: the invisibility of the structure that creates class inequality in neoliberalism.9 Building on Michaels’ extended engagement with the relation between these two kind of invisibility, our aim in this essay is to determine how an assertion of the frame not only offers a means toward rendering the literary visible, but also and more importantly might reorient Latin American studies toward the critique of social structure itself.
We can observe something like the culmination of what we are here calling the objecthood of the text in what the critic Josefina Ludmer has recently described as postautonomous literatures (literaturas posautónomas). For Ludmer, such postautonomous literatures “appear to be literature but cannot be read with literary criteria or categories like author, work, style, writing, text and meaning.”10 “They cannot be read as literature,” she adds, “because they subject ‘literature’ to a drastic operation of emptying-out.”11 Ludmer subsequently locates the origins of literature’s postautonomy in two postulates:
The first is that everything cultural (and literary) is economic and that everything economic is cultural (and literary). And the second postulate would be that reality (if considered from the perspective of the media, which continuously constitutes it) is fiction and that fiction is reality.12
Postautonomous literatures would therefore seem to recall the historical avant-garde’s well-known attack on the category of “work,” though the difference, according to Ludmer, is that this same gesture today acquires an entirely new significance following the end of literary autonomy, or as she puts it, the “end of Bourdieu’s field, which presupposes the sphere’s autonomy (or the thought of spheres).”13 That is, postautonomous literatures are not so much an attack on literary autonomy as they are a symptom of the collapse of what Bourdieu identifies as the “field of restricted production,” whose autonomy “can be measured by its power to define its own criteria for the production and evaluation of its products.”14 This is the sphere in which symbolic goods are manufactured for those producers who establish the criteria of aesthetic value, “internal demarcations [that] appear irreducible to any external factors of economic, political or social differentiation,” including what Ludmer designates the “literariness” (literaturidad) of a work.15 For Ludmer, however, any claim to such irreducibility today ultimately fails to recognize “new conditions of production and circulation of the book that modify ways of reading” in the “era of transnational book publishing corporations or the book’s role in major newspaper, radio, and television networks, as well as in other media.”16 What this means, then, is that postautonomous literatures get what other forms of writing don’t: that it no longer makes any sense to insist on the irreducibility of art to economic, political, or social phenomena, or more simply, on the distinction between art and nonart.
What Ludmer imagines here, in other words, is a form of writing that eliminates its own frame. This much is clear when she notes that these “writings not only cross the border of ‘literature,’ but also that of ‘fiction’ and remain outside-inside both borders.”17 Needless to say, the “border” evoked here has less to do with the physical dimensions of the canvas than with the boundary that categories like “literature” and “fiction” afford. And yet, like the notion of a limitless and unframed work in Salvatierra, such forms of writing not only suggest “they are and at the same time are not literature,” but that “they are fiction and reality” as well, insofar as reality now is “produced and constructed by the media, technologies, and the sciences,” and in this sense, “does not want to be represented because it already is pure representation.”18 Postautonomous literatures might be understood best, then, as a negation of the distinction between art and nonart that embodies a new situation marked by an alteration in the relationship between the economic and the cultural.
No doubt this is the scenario that has defined artistic production within the centers of the global economy like the United States for some time now: a de-autonomization associated with what Fredric Jameson identified nearly three decades ago as “postmodernism or, the cultural logic of late capitalism”; and indeed, one cannot help but hear in Ludmer’s account echoes of Jameson’s claim that “The theory of postmodernity affirms a gradual de-differentiation of these levels, the economic itself gradually becoming cultural, all the while the cultural gradually becomes economic.”19 Importantly, this is this same de-differentiation between aesthetic and commodity production which, according to Jameson, was attended by the rise of a situation within the first world, in which “we seem increasingly incapable of fashioning representations of our own current experience.”20From a certain perspective, then, the trajectory Ludmer traces points to the enlargement of a dynamic to which Jameson’s term “postmodernism” refers: namely, capitalism’s ceaseless march across the globe into previously unincorporated enclaves of cultural production, now integrated into the market. Ludmer’s account thus raises the question of whether the standpoint of Latin American cultural production today is no different than that of the first world, and it is precisely this indistinctness her notion of postautonomous literatures would seem to register in approximating the vanishing point of postmodernism’s own contemporaneity—a sense of the present which, according to Jameson, is no different than that of the commodity.
That said, “postmodernism” has long been part of the Latin Americanist lexicon, as some of the more significant developments in Latin American studies since the 1980s can be understood to participate in what John Beverley and José Oviedo in 1993 called the “postmodernism debate in Latin America.”21 The origins of this “debate,” they contend, lie in the “crisis of the project of the Latin American Left in the wake of its defeat and/or demobilization in the period that extends from 1973 to the present.” “[A]ll of these factors,” they explain, “led to a pervasive climate of ‘disenchantment,’ in which the nationalist and leftist ideologies that had defined the protagonism of the Latin American intelligentsia in the previous period have been at best put on hold, at worst abandoned” (5). For Beverley and Oviedo, the “disenchantment” with Left politics—like that of the Cuban Revolution, for instance—as well as the emergence of new social movements throughout the region demanded the “postmodern” move away from a “politics (and epistemology) of representation to one of solidarity and participation” (8). The problem, as they saw it, was that intellectuals had failed to include, for example, grassroots indigenous populations who worked on writing radio soap opera scripts in Aymara (8). Which is to say that the question of inclusion becomes just as important to culture as it is to politics. Postmodernism in Latin America consequently “posits” a “new sense of cultural and aesthetic agency” to which the Left had not yet reconciled itself. This “new sense,” then, not only marked a reconfiguration of art’s relationship to politics, but would also prove essential to a redefinition of politics itself as the vindication of the excluded subjects of subalternism.
Yet, it is worth remembering that what Beverley and Oviedo conceive as a “new sense of cultural and aesthetic agency” also constituted a foundational moment for Latin American cultural studies, which, as Neil Larsen has shown, rejected that stigmatization of mass or popular culture largely associated with Frankfurt school criticism.22 Against, for example, Adorno and Horkheimer’s critique of the “culture industry,” cultural studies never denies the commodity status of popular culture, but nonetheless urges the recognition of its potential for popular resistance to various forms of domination. But Larsen also makes the connection between this “cultural turn” and postautonomy all the clearer when he notes that the identification of this “oppositional, emancipatory character” derives from an understanding of mass culture that is now cast as “embodying its own scale of values to which notions of aesthetic autonomy are fundamentally irrelevant.”23 This disavowal of notions like autonomy in cultural studies is thus explicitly rooted in a democratizing impulse directed at the dismantling of what has been widely conceived as the Frankfurt school’s shortsighted and elitist insistence on the distinction between “high” and “low” art and hierarchies of aesthetic value, and impulse we can already see underlying Franco’s claim in 1979 that aesthetic autonomy works in the “service of reactionary governments.”24 In short, the turn away from autonomy and toward cultural studies signaled the desire for a more inclusive society.
Perhaps no development in this period captures the nature of this impulse more than testimonio criticism, whose theorization is underwritten by that conception of the unframed text, which is also central to Ludmer’s postautonomous literatures. As is well known, the testimonio begins to gain critical attention in the late 1960s with the publication of Miguel Barnet’s Biography of a Runaway Slave (1966), and with its consecration following the decision by Cuba’s Casa de las Américas to create a testimonio category for its annual prize. Its subsequent rise to prominence as the expression of new social movements throughout Latin America would eventually lead critics like George Yúdice to define the testimonio as an “authentic narrative, told by a witness who is moved to narrate by the urgency of a situation (e.g., war, oppression, revolution, etc.),” as is the case, most notably, of I, Rigoberta Menchú (1982).25 On one hand, then, we might say that the testimonio and postautonomous literatures couldn’t be more different; the commitment to the transmission of an “authentic narrative” is clearly at odds with that capacity to “fabricate present” (fabrican presente) that Ludmer attributes to the postautonomous text: one embodies “authentic” reality, while the other manufactures it (what Ludmer also calls “realityfiction” [realidadficción]).26 On the other hand, it doesn’t take much to see that the testimonio’s means of transmission are founded on a similar disavowal of “literary criteria or categories like author, work, style, writing, text and meaning.”
This is precisely what Larsen underlines when he refers to the testimonio as “postliterary culture.”27 As Larsen demonstrates, readings of testimonios like Menchú’s “seem to produce a virtual ‘erasure’ of the authorial function itself,” an “erasure” which would, from our perspective, seem to prefigure literature’s postautonomy.28 And it is this same commitment to the putatively “postliterary” that Larsen sees in accounts like Yúdice’s, in which the difference between “the testimonial narrative and narrator…ceases to matter,” so that Menchú does not so much “invent or invoke the village or tribal community” as “she herself, or the story, becomes, even constitutes, the community.”29 Which is to say, in the terms elaborated here, that, for Yúdice, it is as if Menchú steps into and out of the frame, or more precisely, it is as if her narrative eliminates it.
This and similar readings of the testimonio also demand a shift in the way we conceive of literary representation, and so it is perhaps not surprising that the thrust of various approaches to the testimonio has long been to downplay the question of representation itself in favor of its practice or performativity. Accordingly, Yúdice claims that “the speaker does not speak for or represent a community but rather performs an act of identity-formation that is simultaneously personal and collective.”30 Yet, this insistence on performativity, is not simply a shift away from representation, but a desire to re-describe literary meaning as a “truth effect” that the testimonio generates.31 Following this logic, the political value of the testimonio, for the postliterary critic, has less to do with the meaning it communicates, since any progressive newspaper, novel, or essay can also speak to these same social injustices. Rather, it is the emphasis placed on the effect generated by this antiliterary text that brings it closer, for example, to a politics of “international human rights and solidarity movements” (37). In this way, critics imagine that the testimonio triggers a univocal political reaction, and so what is important is not simply what it says about a particular group, but rather the unframed text’s ability to elicit what Beverley himself calls an “ethical and political response” (36) like solidarity from the reader; and indeed, for the testimonio to be ethical at all, it must eliminate the frame.
The consequences of this shift from the meaning of the text to the effect it produces are made explicit in in Beverley’s 1989 essay, “The Margins at the Center,” which introduces the idea that the testimonio “constitutes itself as a new form” (40) and “implies a radical break” with the literary and “literature” (42). More specifically, he argues that the testimonio is written with an eye to overcoming “bourgeois writing since the Renaissance” by undermining the idea of “authorial intention” that has long been “bound up” with various notions of literary interpretation and reading. In short, Beverley suggests that insofar as the testimonio calls for a refusal of those concepts central to definitions of literature and literary criticism, then it, like Ludmer’s text, “cannot be read as literature.”
Testimonio criticism, nonetheless, advances the postliterary as an embodiment of political potential—an embodiment, that is, of a “new sense of cultural and aesthetic agency.” Beverley puts it this way:
Because the authorial function has been erased or mitigated, the relationship between authorship and forms of individual and hierarchical power in bourgeois society has also changed. Testimonio represents an affirmation of the individual subject, even of individual growth and transformation, but in connection with a group or class situation marked by marginalization, oppression, and struggle. (41)
Ultimately, we can see that the testimonio as a postliterary phenomenon is also crucially a political project, one that attacks not simply literature and hierarchies of aesthetic value, but a political system that produces a hierarchization of Latin American society, including marginalized groups like the subaltern.
Beverley has more recently summed up the aims of this project in Latinamericanism after 9/11 (2011) with the question, “What would be the elements of a Latinamericanism articulated ‘from’ the subaltern?”—“from” the position, in other words, of those individual and collective subjects that have long been excluded from the national-popular discourses of Latin America.32 And while he has more recently abandoned subalternist critique in favor of what he takes to be a more pragmatic support of the Left governments of the marea rosada he identifies with “postsubalternism,” the terms remain largely the same: an “alliance politics” including various “social groups” and the “different sorts of experiences, interests, values, worldviews, histories, cultural practices, sometimes even languages”(83) that define them. And in fact, one can observe a similar reasoning behind Beverley’s earlier account of the testimonio narrative in “Margin at the Center,” which he understands as “democratic and egalitarian” because it allows for the “entry into literature of persons who would normally […] be excluded” (35) as a result of their race, gender, or social class. More to the point, the testimonio is conceived here as giving voice to those who speak not “about” but “from” the position of exclusion.
At the same time, Beverley also believes that the testimonio’s democratic and egalitarian character allows for an identification with the excluded that promotes “solidarity,” and in so doing, undercuts what Latinamericanism after 9/11 will later describe as the “neo-Arielism” (19) promoted by Latin American intellectuals. These are intellectuals who, according to Beverley, not only regard North American Latin Americanists with skepticism, but also—and more importantly—ignore the “proletarian/popular on whose behalf they had pretended to speak” (20). In this sense, Beverley’s Latinamericanism works toward a de-hierarchization of the political that mirrors the democratization of culture already implicit in cultural studies’ disavowal of aesthetic criteria like autonomy. But this also means that both Latinamericanism and the testimonio reflect a deep investment in the position “from” which one speaks, as well as of the “authentic” (24) voices of those indígenas, afro-latinos, mulattos, mestizos, women, sexual minorities, homosexuals, and even readers and critics, that both literature and traditional politics have excluded. We will return to this investment shortly, but for now it is important to note that the distinction between literary and postliterary culture is, for testimonio criticism, predicated on the idea that a politics of inclusion begins once literature as such ends.
But where, for Beverley, the politics of inclusion central to cultural studies presents a solution to the problems posed by the crisis of the Latin American Left, Alberto Moreiras has shown why a commitment to identities fails as a response to a “substantive change in the structure of capitalism at the world level.” This is the post-Cold War moment of Latin American politics that Moreiras’ own contribution to this issue of nonsite examines in Horacio Castellanos Moya’s La diáspora (1989), in which he reads the novel’s engagement with the defeat of the Central American Left as gesturing toward, in his words, “things and affects that might harbor the seed of historical potencies that remain unseen and unimaginable.” In his seminal The Exhaustion of Difference (2001), Moreiras had already demonstrated what this same moment has meant not simply for Latin American literary and cultural debates, but for the function of “critical reason” more generally.33 According to Moreiras, the insistence on the need to articulate a Latin Americanism “from” the position of the excluded is a kind of “locational thinking,” a form of thought that underlies culturalist notions of a specifically Latin American alternative modernity belonging to what he calls the “aesthetic-historicist paradigm” (15).
Yet, such notions are, according to Moreiras, now exhausted in the wake of the very transformations in global capitalism that postmodernity and globalization name. Like Ludmer, then, Moreiras draws on Jameson to suggest that Latin Americanist discourse has yet to contend with this change, what he later describes as the “move of capital toward universal subsumption under globalization” (29). Moreiras’ point, however, is not to urge an abandonment of cultural studies altogether; and indeed, he argues that cultural studies has made important contributions to the “destruction” of the aesthetic-historicist paradigm by revealing the singularity of not just literature and art but also of Latin American history as discrete objects of study to be “mere ideological prejudice” (15). Yet, cultural studies, he maintains, is still committed to a concept of critical reason tied to the “determination, evaluation, and defense of what is properly Latin American,” and therefore “cannot go beyond the affirmation of an identitarian space-in-resistance, whether from a continental, national, or intranational perspective” (5), and of which Beverley’s commitment to the subaltern is only one version. That is, despite uncovering this “ideological prejudice,” Latin American studies remains largely invested in understanding its object exclusively in terms of identity and difference at a moment marked by the “commodification of location” (21). From this position, refusing to confront this moment of real subsumption, the success of Beverley’s commitment to locational thinking turns out to be a failure.
Accordingly, central to The Exhaustion of Difference is the question of how to study Latin America, while avoiding the “pitfalls of its recommodification” (22), or the trap of locational thinking. As can be expected, this project becomes all the more difficult in the age of real subsumption, “the moment in which intellectual labor, no longer a for-itself, has become a moment of capital” (100). Recalling Jameson and prefiguring Ludmer, Moreiras insists this moment is just as conclusive for art in general and literature in particular, neither of which has recourse today to the distinction between art and commodity, or art and nonart:
And the same happens to aesthetic thinking, which is always necessarily based on the possibility of an existing if unreachable outside…which is aesthetically posited as the transaesthetic foundation of the real and therefore as foundation of the aesthetic itself. (20)
For Moreiras, in other words, the so-called autonomous space of aesthetics—what long acted as one foundation of critical reason—has disappeared. Which is to say that the distance between the artwork and beholder, what, as we’ve already noted, the concept of the frame presupposes, can no longer be preserved under the conditions of real subsumption. That Ludmer’s claim regarding the “end” of the “thought of spheres” will resonate with this account is obvious enough, though the dissolution of the frame here—of what Moreiras calls at one point the “hermeneutic circle”—takes on a specifically political meaning in the conceptualization of the literary that is “postaesthetic and posthistoricist” (16). So, although cultural studies has been “fundamentally committed to the deconstruction of the inside-outside relationship” on which culturalist theories of modernity have rested, it has yet to “engage in the radicalization of its own postulates and look for…the outside of the hermeneutic circularity, what has been subalternized,” and in this sense excluded “as the constitutive outside of the hegemonic relation” (16). Or, said differently, the postaesthetic offers a response to the “aesthetic-historicist paradigm” at the center of Latin Americanism because it takes into account the conditions of real subsumption, conditions which cultural studies continues to ignore.
The postaesthetic moment is the revelation and recognition of this “remainder” (16) and “constitutive outside” as “savage space” (15), which comes to define the concept of critical reason that may yet meet the challenges posed by the real subsumption of intellectual labor today, and which, we will discuss, underlies what Moreiras elsewhere identifies as the “nonsubject of the political” and “infrapolitics.” For now we ought to note that the identification of critical reason with deconstruction here results not only in a reconceptualization of the aims of cultural studies, but in the discovery of entirely new critical possibilities within literary studies as well. For Moreiras, this has everything to do with the “subaltern function” literary studies assumes following the ascendency of cultural studies within the university, a function that allows it to realize the “irruptive possibilities” of “postaesthetic and posthistoricist language” by means of the “literary labor of translation” (16). From the postaesthetic view of this literary labor, however, this point is not to produce a complete translation, but rather that, in taking up this task, criticism could possibly reveal the existence of what he identifies as an “untranslative excess” (23). That translation will always remain incomplete not only recalls the impossibility of completely knowing the object of study (Latin America), but also that some aspect of this object must overcome conceptualization/representation if we are to avoid expropriations and appropriative practices constitutive of capital’s law of equivalence, or the “commodification of location” (21) that has exhausted all thinking of identity and difference. In short, the postaesthetic points to that which always remains the “unreachable outside” of aesthetic and historicist thinking.
At the same time, resistance to the “commodification of location” is associated here with a postaesthetic dimension that rests on the identification of an “excess” not simply as a “supplement to location” (23), but as supplement to the “thought of spheres” that Ludmer associates with literary categories and criteria; and, as Moreiras makes clear, the point of the postaesthetic is to demonstrate the degree to which such thought is predicated on the exclusion of a “constitutive outside” (excess) that, at the same time, destabilizes the “inside-outside relationship.” It is in this sense, then, that the postaesthetic—like the postliterary and postautonomous—can be said to be directed at imagining a text that dissolves its own frame. Or to return to Salvatierra, we might say that, from the perspective of the postaesthetic, the missing scroll works in the novel to destabilize the inside-outside relationship through which the artwork becomes visible. That is, like the supplement in Moreiras’ account, the missing year prevents the frame from completely closing. But where, for Miguel, the unavailability of the scroll means forever living in neither the real nor the aesthetic world, for the postaesthetic, it means the end of the aesthetic-historicist paradigm and the beginning of a new project. And so, like its postliterary and postautonomous counterparts, the postaesthetic imagines that politics begins once the frame dissolves and literature ends.
As Mairal’s novel indicates, this dissolution of the frame would not only render the world indistinguishable from its representation, but in so doing, transform the artwork into an occasion for an experience in much the same way any object we encounter in the world might become such an occasion.34 Or, to put it in terms borrowed from Fried, the distinction between the work of art and its objecthood ceases to matter altogether. And as we have begun to argue, in the context of Latin American criticism and theory, a similar distinction is identified as the problem both postliterary and postaesthetic conceptions of text seek to overcome with an eye to decisively political ends. This is nowhere more apparent than in testimonio criticism, which understands the performative dimension of the postliterary text as a means toward generating an experience that would result in the reader’s identification with the subaltern. But where a critic like Beverley had seen the possibility of solidarity and participation in this dimension of the testimonio narrative, the same insistence on readerly responses vis-à-vis the text that underlies his argument against literature will persist in radicalized form—one that makes it even more fundamental—in Jon Beasley-Murray’s important account of posthegemony.35
To begin, Beasley-Murray’s Posthegemony (2010) argues that considerations of consent, opinions, and beliefs—what he calls “traditional politics”—“offers at best a temporary palliative, at worst a fatal distraction from the real workings of power and domination” (xii). As a result, he locates the possibility of a left politics today in the articulation of habit, affect, and the multitude (as articulated by Bourdieu, Deleuze, and Negri respectively). Beasley-Murray consequently maintains that “in stressing the role of habit,” posthegemonic analysis points to “processes that involve neither consent nor coercion”; and “in stressing the role of affect,” it turns to “the impersonal and embodied flow of intensities that undermines any concept of a rational subject who could provide or withdraw his or her consent” (x).
As Charles Hatfield suggests in his contribution to this special issue, the consequences of this shift away from questions of consent, opinion, and belief that the term “posthegemony” refers to become all the clearer in Beasley-Murray’s claim that “What matters is how things present themselves to us, not what they may represent” (205, emphasis in original). For Hatfield, this amounts to a reiteration of the same commitment to the primacy of the subject’s position that has been central to Latin American intellectual history, and that Moreiras criticizes. But Posthegemony’s emphasis on the “how things present themselves to us” demands an attention to the subject’s affective responses that will, as Beasley-Murray suggests, also have far-reaching consequences for the relationship between politics and aesthetics. Following Terry Eagleton’s notion of aesthetics as a “privileged means by which affect is purified, submitted to the apparent disinterestedness of liberal ideology,” Beasley-Murray discovers a posthegemonic politics in what Eagleton cites as the “habits, pieties, sentiments, and affections” that not only become “the ultimate binding force of the bourgeois social order,” but for this reason also offer a “resource for revolution” (149).
Dierdra Reber’s essay in this issue provides a comprehensive sense of what Eagleton’s claim looks like within the Hispanist literary canon by tracing an affective narrative logic from the colonial period and nineteenth-century independence moments, through the Latin American “boom” literatures, and to present-day mobilization of social media by protest movements in Mexico (#yoysoy132) and Spain (15-M). But Posthegemony takes this claim a step further in imagining that aesthetics is politics to the extent that it provides “something in the body” with an opportunity to “revolt against the power which inscribes it” (149). This is in no small part because “Resistance is no longer a matter of contradiction, but rather of the dissonance between would-be hegemonic projects and the immanent processes that they always fail fully to represent” (136). That this view of aesthetics stems from a “politics of affect” (130) that foregrounds what Posthegemony describes as the “(non)relation or incompatibility between processes of capture and affective escape” (138) will therefore also suggest that Beverley’s “antiliterary” text falls short precisely because the forms of solidarity with new social movements—just as the solidarity with the marea rosada his “postsubalternism” will seek later—rest on the production of a readerly experience that are subject to the processes of capture executed by the state, the party, or populism. In contrast, Beasley-Murray insists that “however much affect is confined, something always escapes” (132), and it is in this “something” that a radical potential for resistance lies. In this way, the “resources for revolution” he sees in aesthetics are deeply bound up with the work’s ability to generate an affective response that, at the same time, underscores the irrelevance of representation and, by extension, of cognitive processes of interpretation. And it is only in so doing that aesthetics can sidestep questions of belief or consent.36
Yet, as Abraham Acosta usefully puts it in an incisive reading of Beasley-Murray’s Posthegemony and Beverley’s Latinamericanism after 9/11, “what we see between the two is the fashioning of competing models and the formation of a new economy of reading.”37 We would only add that this is particularly true insofar as “reading” is understood here not as the interpretation of meaning, but as an attention to the effects a work provokes in the reader. To be sure, this attention is oriented toward different—if not altogether antithetical—political ends in each. For Beverley, the aim is “the formation of a new historical bloc at national, continental, and intercontinental levels in Latin America based on alliance politics between social groups (including but not limited to economic classes) with different sorts of experiences, interests, values, worldviews, histories, cultural practices, sometimes even languages.”38 In contrast, Beasley-Murray suggests that the conjunction of an embodied affect and habit “leads us to the multitude: a social subject that gains power as it constructs new habits, new modes of being in the world whose durability is secured precisely by the fact that they are embodied well beneath consciousness” (178). And yet, if Beverley’s postliterary or “antiliterary” text can be said to perform a kind of consciousness-raising that provides the reader with those beliefs that Beasley-Murray’s politics of affect treats as “temporary palliative” and “fatal distraction,” both are equally committed to imagining a form of immediacy between reader and text that demands a dissolution of the frame. For what is primary in both is not what a work represents, but rather with how it affects us. In brief, what is significant and political about the work of art is, for both, the effect it has on the reader, not what it means or represents.
But this also means that insofar as Posthegemony’s emphasis falls on the “embodied flow of intensities” or effects provoked, then what it understands as the function of the literary text or artwork more generally is no different from that of non-aesthetic objects like populist rhetoric, mass media, or popular culture. Of course, from the standpoint of affective criticism—and from that of cultural studies’ critique of aesthetics—this is precisely the point. In this way, Beasley-Murray provides what is perhaps the clearest picture of what the literary text is and does under the conditions of real subsumption that Ludmer’s postautonomy names. For Ludmer, such forms of writing register a self-reflexive refusal of the literary in its most conventional or formal sense to suggest that they are not fiction because rather than represent reality they “fabricate present.” And if, according to Beasley-Murray, “what matters is how things present themselves to us, not what they may represent,” this is, from Ludmer’s perspective, because in the wake of literature’s real subsumption (“everything cultural [and literary] is economic and that everything economic is cultural [and literary]), there is nothing to represent (“reality…is fiction and fiction is reality”).
As Ludmer also suggests, this emptying-out of both the literary and its claims to representing the present as historical referent will have wide-ranging consequences, not only with respect to the way in which texts are circulated and read, but particularly in regard to what Adorno and Horkheimer had seen as the “distinction between the logic of the work and that of the social system,” a division that literature’s assertion of autonomy had formerly provided. This “social system” is one in which labor processes of all kinds, including cultural ones, are directed toward the creation of value and its valorization. Said differently, without recourse to the logic of the work that such autonomy presumes, we must consider the literary object primarily in relation to what Marx understood as the “unity of the labor process and the process of valorization,” in “the capitalist process of production, or the capitalist form of the production of commodities.”39 And if literature is a commodity like any other, then it can be said to play a significant role in the process of valorization represented by Marx’s exchange-formula M-C-M¹. From the standpoint of this same process of valorization, however, this also means that a literary text is no more significant—indeed, no different—than, say, a Hollywood blockbuster, a saw, a toothbrush, or any other object. Of course, no commodity can fulfill this role unless it meets the demands imposed by the market, which is to say that to presume that literature is only a commodity like any other requires us to believe that what it is and does is determined exclusively by the effort to fulfill consumer desires and realize its exchange-value. Consequently, if Ludmer believes that postautonomous literatures “cannot be read as literature,” this is because what she cites as “literary criteria or categories like author, work, style, writing, text, and meaning” all evince the same market-driven calculation that does not just efface the distinction between artworks and commodities, but also renders the distinction—much like Salvatierra’s absent frame—between literature and any other kind of object irrelevant.
Furthermore, we can understand why the reader’s or viewer’s affective dispositions and experience become all the more important at the moment of literature’s postautonomy, why, in other words, the term “postautonomous literatures” is simply another name for the literatures of posthegemony. For what the work says about itself is, from the point of view of the commodity, less important than what it might say to and about us as readers/consumers, since it is only in light of her or his response that the object has any value for the critic. Thus, what follows from the repudiation of categories like artwork or meaning is a deep investment in considerations of whatever effect the artwork—like any object—happens to produce, and so what we experience and who we are as subjects of that experience become primary concerns. Indeed, for reasons we have already touched on, this insistence on the commodity character of all literature, and art more generally, offers a means toward imagining a dissolution of the frame that renders the work’s objecthood all the more conspicuous. This is no less the case for the posthegemonic commitment to “how things present themselves to us,” for insofar as interpretation is understood here as a cognitive function associated with consent, opinion, belief, and representation, then the question of what a text or painting means is just as much a “distraction” from what is both significant and political about the work itself. And if what matters instead are questions of what happens to us (at a pre-cognitive, corporeal level), as well as who we are (as embodied subjects), then Beasley-Murray’s account is not just consistent with Ludmer’s, but marks a similar insistence on the primacy of textual effects that is consistent with the notion of the frameless text we have traced from the rise of testimonio in 1980s to the postautonomous literatures of the present. We might even say that Beasley-Murray’s affective criticism goes a step further insofar as this commitment to the primacy of what happens at the pre-cognitive and corporeal level makes it impossible to even register something like the frame.
Inequality, Exploitation, and Inclusion
The disintegration of the modicum of distance from the market that literature’s assertion of autonomy had formerly provided here meets the disintegration of that distance between the artwork and subject, or between the text and reader, that the frame presupposes. And as we have just seen, what follows from this is an increasing attentiveness to the question of what happens to the reader. But while this project came to define a good deal of literary and cultural debate in Latin America throughout the last three decades, it has also been consistently given an immediate political content, one which has been underwritten by a concern with the different positions individual and collective subjects assume within society.
The prominence given to this concern marks a tendency that extends well beyond the disciplinary boundaries of these debates and to other disciplines; and in fact, the consequences of this orientation are perhaps nowhere more apparent than in John Womack’s “Doing Labor History: Feelings, Work, Material Power” (2005). Here Womack examines the importance labor studies increasingly places on the worker’s experience, and questions of race, gender, or identity more generally. This concern, he observes, has been attended by a tendency to treat a worker’s relationship to labor—and labor’s relationship to capital—as less important, if not altogether irrelevant. The result, according to Womack, has been a shift from analyses of “coordinated labor power in production” to an investment in accounting for “individual, personal experience, not work, but the feeling of a self at work.”40 Similarly, labor history’s concern with who the worker is—with his or her “‘voices,’ ‘subjectivity,’ ‘experience,’ ‘meanings,’ ‘identity,’ and ‘language’” (274)—not only refuses to see “workers…as labor power” (283), but in so doing, also prevents historians from understanding the very economic structure that transforms individuals into workers in the first place (that is, capitalist production). And this is particularly true, according to Womack, in the case of “U.S. historians of Latin America” (279), for whom the disappointment with the Marxian or revolutionary Left throughout the region would prove decisive by 1990.
But the tendency Womack considers here can also be said to participate in what Daniel Zamora has identified as a “semantic and ideological evolution” that has sought to redefine the fundamental problem of exploitation as a question about exclusion.41 As Zamora suggests, this evolution is rooted in a broader tendency—inside and outside of the university—to conceive of politics exclusively as an accounting for the disproportionate effects of inequality that individuals and marginalized groups experience under capitalism. Tracing this shift through debates on the economy in Europe and the US since the 1980s, and back to the stress on domination and discrimination underlying the critique of classical Marxism of the late-1960s, Zamora notes that the growing centrality of the term “excluded” for both the Right and the Left has worked primarily to displace a concern with those forms of exploitation that underlie labor’s relationship to capital. What this has meant, according to Zamora, is that
[T]he categories of “the unemployed,” “the poor,” or the “precarious,” are swiftly disconnected from being understood in terms of the exploitation at the heart of capitalist economic relations, and find themselves and their situation apprehended in terms of relative (monetary, social, or psychological) deprivation, filed under the general rubrics of “exclusion,” “discrimination,” or forms of “domination.”
Whether mobilized on behalf of conservative critiques of the “privileged and protected welfare underclass,” or by leftists with an eye to underscoring the radical potential of the “precariat,” the “sans-culottes,” or the “part of the partless,” this focused attention on the category of the “excluded” pits two factions of the same exploited class—the employed and unemployed, “active” workers and “surplus populations”—against each other. Importantly, this shift has also succeeded in redefining the antagonism between labor and capital at the heart of capitalism as the conflict between the “included” and the “excluded,” and in so doing, has reoriented the aims of social and political theory away from the transformation of the mode of production and capitalist economic relations. And if, as Zamora notes, “what takes center stage is what/where one is (one’s identity) in the relations of domination within one’s own class (unemployed, underemployed, immigrant, etc.),” then we can begin to see why this semantic and ideological evolution can be said to recall the same commitment to the prominence of identity and experience Womack sees in labor history’s concern with “the feeling of a self at work.”
No doubt the historical trajectory Zamora outlines belongs to the context of the end of the American and European postwar boom that introduced not only a quantitative change in unemployment, but also a qualitative transformation in the form that unemployment takes. And yet, it is also true that a similar change in the global distribution of unemployment—as well as in the global division of labor—has produced comparable consequences in intellectual and political debates within the context of Latin American studies since the 1980s. As Robert Kurz has shown, this postwar boom corresponds to a period marked by an explosive increase in capital intensity (what Marx calls the “organic composition of capital”) propelled by an unprecedented leap in the scientific and technical capacity of capitalist production during the postwar period, but whose origins lie in the very logic of commodity production that demands the development of productive forces from businesses with an eye to competitiveness.42 The result is an intensification of productivity that renders capital increasingly incapable of absorbing labor power. Or, as Kurz puts it, capitalism becomes “‘unable to exploit,’ that is, for the first time in the history of capitalism, the total global mass of productively exploited abstract labor is declining absolutely, as a result of the permanently increasing levels of productive forces.”43 This new and unprecedented standard of productivity leads to a decline in profitability that throws the entire global system of commodity production into crisis.
The consequences of this historically specific immanent contradiction are well known in Latin America, whose economies could not keep up with these new levels of productivity, and onto which the burden of this crisis is eventually shifted by way, for example, of the structural adjustment policies designed by the IMF and World Bank. What follows, according to Kurz, is the “collapse of modernization,” a situation in which the conditions of possibility for social and economic modernization had been radically altered, if not altogether eliminated, by the third world’s inability to meet new levels of productivity. Consolidated under the debt crisis of the 1980s, this collapse of modernization would render the developmentalist hope for success within that system—to say nothing of an alternative to it—an impossibility. But this also means that the proletarianized masses that various modernization projects promised to integrate into the national-popular state become redundant to capital’s economic needs, transformed now into what Kurz calls “monetary subjects without money.” For Kurz, “Most of the world’s population today, therefore, already consists of monetary subjects without money, people who do not fit into any form of social organization, neither pre-capitalist nor capitalist, much less post-capitalist, being forced to live a social leprosy that already comprises most of the planet.”44 These are surplus populations, but Kurz’s terminology is important here precisely because it marks the degree to which they remain products of and subject to the logic of exploitation, even as unabsorbed labor power.
But if this transformation in the political configuration of the world economic system can be said to precipitate the explosion in the surplus populations of Latin America’s favelas, villas miserias, and ciudades perdidas, it might also be understood as the origins of that tendency within political theory and debates to emphasize the “excluded.” It is perhaps for this reason that the displacement of a concern with exploitation by questions of domination and discrimination Zamora traces was no less decisive for Latin American studies. Citing Žižek, Zamora notes that the critique of classical Marxism in Europe and the US “compelled many thinkers and movements to redefine their sense of the ‘social agents who could play the role of the revolutionary subject, as understudies who might replace an indisposed working class: Third World peasants, students, intellectuals, the excluded.’” This is also the case in Latin America following the socioeconomic collapse of modernization, which precipitated a dismantling of political utopias and rise in surplus populations that appear to have posed new challenges to the Marxian commitment to exploitation as the privileged category of social critique.45 Accordingly, a similar search for such “social agents” increasingly—though not totally—divested of any association with class like the subaltern that has been as central to Latin Americanism for some time now.
For example, we have already observed how this collapse and ensuing disappointment underlies Beverley and Oviedo’s call for a shift from a “politics (and epistemology) of representation to one of solidarity and participation.” Beverley’s work throughout the same period maintained that resistance in the form of such solidarity and participation with various social movements would oppose the hierarchies and subordinations imposed by the national-popular state. What Beverley and Oviedo call “alliance politics,” to be sure, is simply another name for “identity politics,” though, more importantly, it also highlights the degree to which Beverley’s notion of resistance redefines the goal of all politics as a critique of domination articulated in terms of inclusion.
Moreiras proposes an alternative to such politics of inclusion/exclusion when he insists that such solidarity and participation always presumes some prior exclusion that ultimately undermines the egalitarian project promoted by critics like Beverley. Moreiras has more recently expanded on this point in a response to Beverley, explaining that the “notion that the subaltern is the constitutive outside of any hegemonic articulation—hence, the subaltern cannot claim belonging, and must therefore not claim any positive identity whatsoever: the subaltern is the nonsubject of the political.”46 This is a concept he fully develops in Línea de sombra (2006) as an alternative to all forms of “subjectivism in politics”—that is, to the insistence on the political primacy of the subject. Such subjectivism, Moreiras argues, “is always exclusionary, always particularist, even when the subject is conceived as communitarian subject,” as in communism, “and even when the subject conceived of itself as representative of the universal,” as in liberalism.”47 In contrast, the nonsubject is “not an ideal to be reached, a goal to be achieved”; rather, it is “only an instance to take into account, only a necessary condition of all political thought” that suggests that “neither justice nor equality nor liberty would be able to exist if justice, equality, and liberty are exclusionary” in any sense.48 The possibility of a politics beyond the subject is consequently made available by a form of political thought—what Moreiras refers to here and elsewhere as “infrapolitics”—grounded in a recognition of a “constitutive outside” the nonsubject names, but which, at the same time, can never be incorporated into the articulation of political concepts like justice, equality, or liberty.49 Thus, pace Beverley, the point is not to produce some more inclusive version of these or similar concepts by way of something like an “alliance politics,” since, according to Moreiras, such a politics is invariably derived from an image of the subject that generates its own radical exclusions, remaining always outside all political and aesthetic articulations. Similarly, Susana Draper’s essay in this special issue of nonsite demonstrates how literature, and particularly Roberto Bolaño’s Amuleto (1999), marks the possibility of opening up a space for thinking through and beyond the notion of an impossible democracy to come, all while refusing to reduce that notion to a singular political subject.
Needless to say, Moreiras’ thought of the political finds a counterpart in the concept of the postaesthetic, which, as we noted above, is not directed at any inclusion as such, but rather at the identification of an “excess” on which the binary of inside/outside (inclusion/exclusion) is not just predicated, but also by which it is deconstructed. But if Moreiras’ commitment to subalternism as such can be said to alter the political meaning of exclusion, even radicalizing it as the necessary condition for all politics, we may nonetheless ask whether it can be made to speak not simply to relations of power (which always leave a “remainder,” “excess,” or “outside”), but to a mode of production in which exclusion itself—as in the case of the economic category of monetary subjects without money—is not just coincident with the logic of exploitation, but the inexorable result of that logic. That is, while infrapolitics offers a compelling means for a critique of domination that foregrounds the failure of every hegemonic articulation (justice, equality, liberty) by taking into account the excluded nonsubject, how might it lead to a transformation of a mode of production defined, above all, by exploitation? Or, to put the question another way: how might we map the movement from the infrapolitical to politics itself?
For Beasley-Murray, the upshot of this “vigilant and unceasing critique of power on the basis of hegemony’s inevitable failures” is an unsatisfactory conception of “posthegemony as permanent critique or labor of the negative.” The problem, he argues, is that critics like Moreiras “question the rules of the game by pointing to the aporetic excess for which [hegemony] can never account. But they do not doubt the game itself” (xiv). In response to what he sees as the failure of subaltern studies, Beasley-Murray develops a notion of posthegemony with a view to locating new modes of resistance, which are found in that affect, habit, and multitude to which domination itself—now at the noncognitive, corporeal level—gives rise. From this perspective too, the kinds of inclusion Beverley calls for, whether on behalf of the state, the party, or the people, ought to be regarded with skepticism, insofar as these are functions of an apparatus of “capture” into which the radical potential of such modes of resistance dissolves. In contrast, “Affect precedes and resists the process of subjection that gives us stable emotions and bounded identities,” and so “Something always escapes.” “But affect is ambivalent,” Beasley-Murray argues, and just as easily mobilized by the repressive structures associated with the state and market: “As habit, affect continually encodes structures of domination, even immanently” and “perpetuates an arbitrary social order ‘on the hither side of words and concepts’” (227).
At the same time, it turns out that habit too is “ambivalent,” and therefore “threatens to outstrip the structures that it constitutes.” In this sense, affect and habit are both “components of a constituent power that escapes and exceeds constituted power,” which is to say, that they are tools of domination that nonetheless become a means to resist and subvert it. One is tempted here to see something of Moreiras’ emphasis on the nonsubject as the “constitutive outside,” or “excess,” that refuses all forms of inclusion, though a pointed difference asserts itself in Beasley-Murray’s claim that “Affect and habit are the first two concepts of a theory of posthegemony, but they lead on to a third: the multitude.” For the multitude, as theorized by Negri and as Posthegemony insists, is a subject, and even “reclaims subjectivity from its disrepute in much twentieth-century political theory” (228). Although, “Like the multitude, the subaltern is beyond representation,” it is nonetheless a “limit concept,” and so whereas “Subalternity is defined negatively,” as the negation of hegemonic articulations of all kinds, the “multitude, by contrast, is defined positively” as the self-constituting subject of history that leaves “hegemony behind altogether” (234).
Herein, then, lies both the potential for resistance that embodied forms of affect and habit can be said to possess, as well as the futurity of posthegemony: for “habit leads us to the multitude: a social subject that gains power as it constructs new habits, new modes of being in the world whose durability is secured precisely by the fact that they are embodied well beneath consciousness” (178). Now, while this conceptualization of posthegemony would seem to recall the same investment in experience Zamora and Womack identify with the shift in political theory and labor studies away from the question of exploitation, Beasley-Murray refuses the equation of affect with experience alone, as that which “happens to a body.” At the same time, the disavowal of affect’s reduction to experience gives way to a transformation of history itself into the “recomposition or movement of bodies, a series of modulations in and through affect” (132). For Beasley-Murray, then, the point is not so much to foreground an experience produced by the subject’s position within a particular social structure determined by one’s race, gender, or class. The point is rather to conceive of this very structure as both acting on and a product of such bodily movements, which will, at the same time, give rise to new affects and habits that resist systematicity and structure as that which “always escapes.”
For all that, such resistance should, again, not be confused with that form of radical exclusion on which Moreiras’ thought of the political insists; on the contrary, insofar as affect, habit, and the body itself are now grasped simultaneously as the object of domination and locus of resistance “on the hither side of words and concepts,” the thrust here is decidedly toward a radicalized vision of inclusion—extended now to bodies, flesh, skin, and nerves—that encompasses life itself, what Beasley-Murray, following Foucault, refers to as biopolitics. That is, political resistance is located in that which “always escapes” the apparatuses of capture associated with the state, party politics, populism, or the market, but remains situated in those processes immanent to the social field.
For this reason, however, Posthegemony’s biopolitics, like Moreiras’ infrapolitics, must also defer the question of class politics, and Beasley-Murray suggests as much when he notes that the “multitude is a subject of a particular kind.” For while it is not the “rational individual beloved of the social sciences or one of the delimited identities of cultural studies’ multicultural alliance” reminiscent of Beverley’s Latinamericanism, it also isn’t the “traditional working class, whose identity derives from its place in the process of production and hence its relation to capital” (228). The multitude, in this sense, is the solution in which all class differences dissolve.50 But, as Zamora explains, “More than (or rather than) an identity, the idea of proletarian,” or the working class, “constituted a category” in classical Marxism. This category was “derived from the general processes of exploitation and inequality” and is a “function of the economic organization of capital.”51 What this means is that although posthegemonic politics advances a powerful critique of how the state, along with social and economic elites, exercise power, the stress laid on “how things present themselves to us,” on those effects generated at the level of the body, involves deemphasizing the general processes that give rise to such effects in the first place. From this perspective, infrapolitics and the politics of affect appear as two sides of the same coin, not simply because both challenge the identitarianism implicit in various kinds of political theory and “traditional politics,” but also because the conditions of the political are primarily conceived in radicalized terms of inclusion or exclusion that renders the structure of exploitation itself a secondary, if not altogether irrelevant concern. As Zamora’s essay makes clear, however, the refusal to recognize exploitation as a primary concern is something which both the neoliberal Right and progressive Left are happy to accept, extending an overall trend since the late 1970s to redescribe the “class difference that generates the very structures of capitalism and exploitation” as difference in how the “effects of inequality get distributed throughout society.” And the problem with this shift, according to Zamora, is that it obstructs the possibility “to think abstractly about the forces that produce inequality…and leaves us stranded at the level of their immediate forms,” making it all the more difficult to imagine the transformation of the very structure that gives rise to this inequality on both a local and world-systemic scale.
Making Form Visible
Indeed, the point for Womack and Zamora is that the effort to imagine any transformation as such is not simply a question of exploitation, but of making the structure that produces it visible. Womack makes this point clear, for example, when addressing the refusal on the part of labor studies to account for that which defines it as a discipline: labor. This refusal, he argues, is important not simply as a matter of accounting for exploitation, but as a question of conceptualizing the discipline’s object of inquiry itself: “They can ‘explore the articulation [sic, for inflection] of gender and class’ all they please, but they will not explain industrial workers’ gender or class (or discourse or subjectivity), so long as they look for it only in ‘experience’” (93). In other words, insofar as what counts is the “feeling of the self,” then it matters very little whether that feeling is produced by work, discrimination, inequality, exclusion or even other bodies. That is, the emphasis on experience functions to make the cause of that experience—capitalist economic relations—tangential at best, irrelevant at worst.
Undoubtedly, the brand of political theory developed by several of the critics considered here concerns the way in which power functions and effectuates domination under capitalism, and how the effects it generates become sites of potential resistance and revolt. Thus, Beasley-Murray reads in Marx the claim that “Part and parcel of our exploitation is that our habits are not our own” (204) to suggest that capital demands and imposes mechanisms of social domination that secure the perpetuation of exploitation itself. The problem with the emphasis on domination in Latin American studies, however, is that in leaving questions about the same system’s mode of production aside, it has tended to render the structure of capitalist economic relations barely visible. Said differently, while an attention to embodied habits, experience, or hegemonic articulations may very well gesture toward an account of how exploitation continues to persist, it alone cannot make the relations of production that generate the structures of class inequality and exploitation legible in the first place. To think otherwise would be to render the difference between this system and the manner in which it reproduces itself indistinguishable. From this point of view, then, we can begin to understand the force of what Zamora means when he notes that the “invisibility” of these structures “is a kind of image of neoliberalism.”
No doubt Womack’s and Zamora’s astute insights into labor and the structure of the economy also find a parallel in Latin Americanist literary and cultural debates, which have borne witness to a turn away from that which had long defined these and similar fields: an attention to the work itself. The predominant literary project that emerges from these debates is one committed to the text’s dissolution of the very structure that distinguishes it from non-literary objects, and art from nonart more generally, rendering the differences between these invisible. Beatriz Sarlo makes a similar observation about cultural studies when she notes that:
[T]he aesthetic question cannot be ignored without significant loss. Because if we ignore the question of aesthetics we would be losing sight of the object that cultural studies is trying to construct (in opposition to an anthropological definition of culture).…The difficulty that we face is that we are no longer sure in what sense (whether formal or fundamental) art is a specialized dimension of culture, a dimension which can be defined separately from other cultural practices. Thus, once again, the point which concerns us is whether we can capture the specific dimension of art, that feature which tends to be overlooked from the culturalist perspective which motivates cultural studies, which so far has been ultra-relativist with respect to formal and semantic density. The paradox we face could also be considered one in which cultural studies is perfectly equipped to examine almost everything in the symbolic dimension of the social world, except art.52
Sarlo’s claim here has been widely criticized as evidence of her elitism—or even, as Beverley suggests, of her “neoconservative” thinking—and as evoking a desire to return to more traditional notions of literary studies associated with the national-popular state.53 Given Sarlo’s stress on values and her defense elsewhere of expertise, such criticisms are warranted.54 At the same time, Sarlo’s interest in the “aesthetic question” also raises crucial questions about the invisibility the “specific dimension of art” assumes within cultural studies. This is essentially a question of mediation, and so we might change the valences of terms like “value” and “ultra-relativist” to suggest that what is at stake here is the possibility of accounting for form at a moment when literature and culture are conceived primarily as isomorphic. From this perspective, Sarlo’s critique can be said to mark a commitment to the primacy of form, one which need not culminate in a defense of notions like “aesthetic value,” as it does in her essay, but which is nonetheless a necessary condition of any effort to conceptualize not just a distinction between art and nonart, but a distance between the artwork and reader’s or viewer’s experience.
We get a version of what this might look like in Mairal’s Salvatierra, and particularly in Miguel’s idea that finding the missing scroll would complete his father’s “work.” What is crucial here for Salvatierra’s son—and crucial for a certain conception of literature and art—is that without the roll, the difference between art and life becomes blurred, producing what the novel describes as the sensation of a “limitless flow” or the “infinite.” But this, as we recall, also raises the question of what, if anything, could make the four kilometers of canvas something other than an object the beholder experiences in the same way she or he might experience any other massive object.
This is a question the novel seeks to address, for instance, when Miguel recalls that the Guinness Book of Records people had proposed to lay out the work on a highway and film it from a helicopter. The brothers refuse because “Salvatierra wouldn’t have liked this. He hadn’t painted his work for it to be seen from a helicopter like some kind of monstrous prodigy” (MY31/S38).55 Viewing the painting in this way would suggest experiencing the enormity of an amazing or unusual thing, and, as Mairal’s narrator would have it, Salvatierra had sought to create something else. Indeed, the novel alerts us to this fact earlier when Miguel notes that their father had distanced himself from the “installations and happenings” of the sixties, “aesthetic concerns that were alien to him” (MY23/S28), and which were—at least historically— conceived as attacks on the institution of art and the category of “work” itself. This is why Miguel’s search for the missing year is central to Salvatierra’s story, for finding the scroll would imply that “The infinite would reach an end.” But if finding the scroll would complete the work of art, and in this sense, provide a “frame, a border,” this does not mean that the sensation of limitlessness it provokes is totally irrelevant to its status as a painting; what the frame introduces rather is the possibility of distinguishing between whatever Miguel might feel before the canvas and what the artist wants everyone to feel. Indeed, no one denies that artworks can provoke an infinite range of responses from viewers/readers that have everything to do with who they are. The problem isn’t that the work of art gives rise to various kinds of effects, or even that we might think of it as the source of our affective dispositions. Rather, the problem is that, in the absence of the frame, the difference between painting and objects ceases to matter altogether, and so the experience of a tree in Salvatierra’s painting becomes no different than the experience of a tree outside of it. Thus, the insistence on the frame turns out to be not only an insistence on a distinction between art and nonart, but an assertion of the irreducibility of the artwork’s intended effects to the actual effects it occasions.
What it means to make artistic form visible, then, is to mark a distance between artworks and objects, between a representation of the world and the world itself, and in this sense, to make the difference between intended and unintended effects visible. Borrowing from Michael Fried, we might say that in defeating or suspending its own objecthood, Salvatierra’s painting would not simply insist on the irrelevance of the beholder’s experience to its meaning, but more precisely, on the irrelevance of those unintended effects that any beholder might experience. The difference between these views is provided here by the frame, which, in foregrounding the canvas’ status as painting, allows us to ascribe the sensation of limitlessness Miguel feels not to an object but to a work of art, and to understand that sensation itself as an intended effect, that is, as a question of meaning and interpretation.
In this way, Salvatierra’s assertion of the frame can be said to approximate Fried’s idea of absorption in painting, which is both constitutive of a “mode of pictorial unity,” as well as a means by which to refuse the reduction of the artwork’s meaning to the beholder’s actual experience.56 What is important in Fried’s account, as in Sarlo’s, is the possibility of envisioning a work whose form and meaning remain irreducible to those unintended effects the beholder/reader may experience. And we can see something of the inverse in Beasley-Murray’s claim that “What matters is how things present themselves to us, not what they may represent.” For if what the work may represent or mean—an interpretive question associated with “consent, opinion, and belief”—does not matter, then the difference between intended and unintended effects cannot matter either. Conversely, in Mairal’s novel, the insistence on this “specific dimension of art” presupposes a distance that not only allows Miguel to live outside of his father’s painting and past, but also makes representation possible; to insist on what Miguel calls the frame, in other words, is to insist on the irreducibility of art to objecthood, making visible a formal distinction between meaning and readerly experience that a significant swath of Latin Americanist theory has treated as unimportant for the last thirty years.
The point, however, is not simply that the text needs to defeat or suspend its own objecthood. It is also a matter of making form—literary and social—visible. Steve Buttes’ contribution to this issue of nonsite provides a sense of why this is the case by turning to the matter of literature and debt, though as Womack and Zamora indicate, this is not a question for literary studies alone. That is, it isn’t difficult to see that the success of neoliberalism as a political project has depended largely on the effort to imagine, or insist on, a world in which economic structures like class inequality are invisible, one in which “there is no such thing as society,” and in which the free market operationalizes the self-interest of unconstrained individuals. As both Womack and Zamora point out, part of the problem with this invisibility is that it makes it impossible to understand the effects generated by capitalist economic relations like the exclusion of surplus populations. In the case of Latin American studies, it has been primarily culturalists, like Beverley, who have stressed the primacy of experience. And while critics like Moreiras and Beasley-Murray offer incisive critiques of subjectivism and identity politics that underlie this project, they are equally committed to doing away with form; indeed, all see form (and the mediation it assumes) as central to both the aesthetic and political problem.
This is a situation in which something like the assertion of the frame in Salvatierra, what amounts to a refusal of the artwork’s objecthood, acquires an entirely new political significance, because in making the “specific dimension of art” legible, it also marks a limit to the reduction of the artwork’s form to the experience of seeing it or reading it. Or, to put it another way, the assertion of the frame is what makes seeing or reading not simply a question of what the work says to and about us as viewers or readers, but a question of what it means, and in this sense, of interpretation. And insofar as the question of meaning is predicated on an attention to form, on what we have been calling the frame, then we can begin to see how this attention orients our thinking away from the prominence given to experience, and effects more generally, that plays into a disavowal of structure (economic, political, social) that neoliberalism demands. Which is just to say that if an assertion of literary form is, in fact, a politics, this is because it insists on a certain irrelevance of the claim “that everything cultural (and literary) is economic and that everything economic is cultural (and literary),” a claim which underlies that conception of the unframed text that we have traced through the work of Ludmer, Beverley, Moreiras and Beasley-Murray. Indeed, what follows from this claim is not simply an injunction to conceive of literature as nothing but a commodity like any other, but a refusal to conceive of the text as anything more than an object. And yet, the insistence on form—on that which makes Salvatierra’s painting, for example, a representation of the world rather than an object in it—suggests that regardless of whether art is a commodity, its meaning isn’t. To think otherwise, as we have shown, is to reduce meaning to experience, and to understand interpretation as nothing but an attention to whatever effects the text provokes. A politics of form consequently emerges not simply from the visibility of the frame, but in a certain irreducibility of meaning to experience that this visibility maintains. In this sense, the insistence on form becomes the theoretical point of departure for a critique not simply of the Latin Americanist commitment to the unframed text, but also of the market, where the distinction between meaning and effect, art and objecthood, and interpretation and experience similarly dissolves. And it is in maintaining this distinction that the assertion of the frame preserves the possibility of seeing the very structure of exploitation that neoliberalism demands to be hidden.