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Why You Might Want to Pay Attention to Autonomy: Response to José Eduardo González

Di Stefano is responding to José Eduardo González’s review here.

The Vanishing Frame began as an attempt to understand the origins and consequences of a postdictatorial reality that was emerging in Latin America during the 1980s and 1990s, one that centered on the commitment to human rights as the primary position through which the Left articulated the concept of injustice and how to confront it.1 This political reality was as much a consequence of the state that inflicted abuses on its citizens as it was the upshot of international solidarity movements that sought to address and bear witness to these abuses. Before the dictatorships of the 1970s, human rights held little, if any, political prominence in countries such as Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay, and had almost no relevance for the political movements that fought against the state. After the return to democracy, however, human rights, with the emphasis on the integrity of the body, past abuses, and truth and justice, became the primary conceptual framework through which to view the past and to think progressive politics in the present. Or at least this was the case for the Left that aimed at creating a more stable and just democracy through a discourse of memory, which elevated questions of remembering or forgetting past violence (torture, disappearances) to a principal concern. What was less important to this nascent worldview (and seems almost beside the point now) was the ideological conflict between socialism and capitalism that preceded the dictatorships, which unlike human rights, precipitated the years of state-sponsored terror. As such, we can begin to see that the call to remember past violence also tends to forget, even push aside, the anti-capitalist project that was at the heart of Leftist politics before and during the dictatorships. In other words, the fundamental disagreement between two political ideologies (and two distinct ways of imagining how society might best be organized) was now redescribed as a conflict between remembering and forgetting human rights violations, a conflict that is, as I argue in the book, deeply compatible with neoliberalism. Consequently, in the postdictatorial period, while the Left strongly (and justifiably) quarreled with the Right regarding issues about past abuses, the same could not always be said about economic policies, as the Left—at first apprehensively and then later devotedly—embraced the free market. Human rights provided the Left a position of difference while sharing with the Right the economic ideology that they once fought against. To be sure, the Left’s electoral victories in the early 2000s—what is often described as the Pink Tide—were attempts to address a legacy of human rights violations as well as to correct some of neoliberalism’s most pernicious consequences. Further, it is equally true that today, with the resurgence of the Right across Latin America, this Leftist project is under threat. Nevertheless, to grasp clearly this moment, it is essential to understand the foundational role that human rights have played in solidifying neoliberal hegemony in Latin America. From this vantage point, the rise of the Left in the 2000s becomes the moment when the postdictatorial era comes into full view as the consolidation of the neoliberal world order via human rights.

Latin Americanist cultural criticism has, for the most part, been no less enthusiastic in its celebration of this new world. To be sure, much of the scholarship on the legacy of the dictatorships, with its focus on trauma, memory, affect, and disability, understands itself as working for human rights activism and against neoliberalism. More specifically, the emphasis on trauma, memory, affect, and disability sees a blurring of the lines between art and politics as a means to advocate for human rights and to resist neoliberalism. Consider the discourse of memory, which, as I just noted,promotes a political message that remembers the pain of the victim while forgetting the anti-capitalist project to which the victim was committed. For postdictatorial scholarship, this largely becomes a question of how a text, a film, or a painting must function as an object of transmission rather than as an object of interpretation in order to guarantee this political purpose. If a work functions less as an object of interpretation and more like an object that transmits pain—that is, less like a representation of torture, and more like the very act of torture itself—then the pain of the victim could be shared with the reader. Or more strategically, the viewer could be transformed into a sort of witness to these events. Like memory, theoretical positions committed to the relevance of trauma, affect, and disability have served as mechanisms to sidestep and even disavow questions of interpretation, with an eye to creating a kind of immediacy between that event and the reader or viewer. Of course, unlike the events we witness, questions of interpretation require disagreements—or even agreements—over what the text means; and thus by turning art into an object of transmission those interpretations are now understood as effects that render disagreements about what the text means impossible. In this way, we can begin to see a politics developing in the postdictatorial period where treating art as a series of effects becomes aligned with a Leftist project, while questions about art are envisioned as a way of ignoring that project. Or worse still, questions about intention, interpretation, disagreements, and representation—which is to say questions raised by the work of art—come to be regarded as actively working against any kind of solidarity with the victims of Latin America’s dictatorships.

But once we begin to treat artwork as, above all, an occasion for an experience, we also can immediately see the value that this approach has to neoliberalism, which is fundamentally committed to thinking about aesthetic and political disagreements as differences between perspectives (or “the group that binds”). And the point of treating these issues as differences rather than as disagreements, as Walter Benn Michaels argues, is that it allows us not to think of neoliberalism as a problem but rather as a kind of solution.3 In the case of the Southern Cone, it becomes a solution because the military regimes of the 1970s believed that socialism was a threat to capitalism. As we recall, in the period that precipitated the dictatorships, the fundamental ideological conflict centered on a disagreement between socialism and capitalism, and more specifically, at least for those on the Left, around the question of economic equality. For revolutionary groups like MLN-Tupamaros in Uruguay or the Montoneros in Argentina, what was wrong with capitalism, among other things, was that it was a system of exploitation that produced poverty, and what was right about socialism was that it sought to eradicate that system. But today poverty in Latin America has become a question of treatment, respect, and dignity, which of course is also framed within a colonial legacy of racism against indigenous peoples, mestizos, and blacks. The whole point here is that once you treat the poor as another group that is discriminated against for who they are, you no longer have to think about poverty as a system of exploitation. In fact, you don’t have to think about poverty as something that is right or wrong, but rather as a difference to be valued and even celebrated, if we could only stop discriminating. For the Tupamaros or Montoneros, however, the problem was not that we discriminated against the poor but rather that the poor existed; that is, the problem was with the capitalist system of exploitation the produced poverty. The idea is not that you have to be a revolutionary to want to get rid of economic inequality, but you do have to at least think that economic inequality is wrong. And if you believe it’s wrong, you believe it’s wrong not just for some but for everybody. But once poverty is treated as a difference of perspective, then resolving the problem of poverty involves not getting rid of it, but rather shifting our perspectives so that the poor can continue to be poor but with dignity and respect. The perception of the poor changes, but capitalism remains untouched. The redescription of disagreements as differences thus becomes a means not to challenge this system of exploitation, but to keep it firmly in place. But my argument is not that a commitment to aesthetics can eliminate poverty. Aesthetic questions (e.g., what does the text mean?) are of a different order, even though I might disagree with your interpretation of a text in much the same way as I might disagree with your beliefs about capitalism. The point here, instead, is that the desire to treat art as nonart ends up eliminating any possibility of disagreement (or even agreement) and, in doing so, any possibility of thinking beyond neoliberalism. Thus, if part of my argument is meant to show that art and nonart are not the same, the other part is to insist that thinking they are marks a further entrenchment of neoliberalism. Which is just to say that the attempt to blur the lines between art and nonart—the attempt to redescribe disagreements into differences between perspectives or subject positions—ultimately confirms a vision—at least for the Left—where problems are viewed primarily through the lens of human rights, and possible solutions to those problems are resolved within neoliberalism’s marketplace of ideas.

This summary serves as a point of entry to address some of González’s criticisms of my book. In his review, González argues that to apply the term “postdictatorial period” to the entire Latin American region runs the risk of “flattening” complex national histories of countries like Colombia and Guatemala, which are different from Southern Cone countries such as Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay. As suggested above, I present the term “postdictatorial” in two ways in the book. First, postdictatorial characterizes the historical events (and specific chronology) and the cultural production of the Southern Cone, from the end of the dictatorships to the rise of the Pink Tide. Second, postdictatorial describes how Latin Americanism (including in the Southern Cone) has been bound up conceptually and ideologically in the idea of human rights and neoliberalism, roughly during that same time period. My readings of Botero’s Abu Ghraib and Rigoberta Menchú’s testimonio are largely positioned within and against this broader discourse. Thus, while it is certainly true that the histories of Colombia and Guatemala are different from those of the Southern Cone (and from each other), the discourses of human rights in relation to the question of how we perceive and approach Latin America are not. Surely, another term could be used to name this broader discourse, but the term “postdictatorship” does have the advantage of offering something like a regional genealogy of human rights and neoliberalism, one that begins in the Southern Cone in the 1970s, and that almost immediately extends to the rest of the region. But this only means that a change in terminology would not have made a fundamental difference in my reading of Botero’s Abu Ghraib as a work that rejects the moral universe of neoliberalism.

Admittedly, for González, my terminology is a minor criticism. Nevertheless, I hope that my explanation above helps to better frame some of the other questions and concerns that are raised in his review, particularly with regard to what he describes as the “crucial second part of the book.” González begins his review with a reading of Borges’s “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” which gets to the heart of this second part where I consider the work of more contemporary writers, filmmakers, and artists including Roberto Bolaño, Pablo Larraín, and Alejandro Zambra, whose interests in aesthetic autonomy emerge in a period where neoliberalism is fully consolidated, and whose individual works understand that the real aim of the dictatorship was to organize every aspect of society according to the dictates of the free market. These are the main reasons why the interest in aesthetic autonomy (as well as in intention, interpretation, disagreements, and representation) for these artists becomes less a response to the moral universe of neoliberalism than a direct criticism of the market. As González reminds us, Borges’s story concludes with the fictional narrator noting that Tlön will soon subsume everything, but that he “pay[s] no attention” as he works on a literary translation which he has no intention of publishing. The anachronistic 1947 postscript of the short story (part of the original short story published in 1940) includes a comment about “dialectical materialism, anti-Semitism, and Nazism;”4 and thus, for González, the narrator’s claim to autonomy is read as a critique of those artists who, like the narrator, turn a blind eye to totalitarianism. This allows González to draw a parallel between the worldview of Borges’s narrator and my reading of Zambra’s Bonsái, which is more concerned with aesthetic matters than with political (the dictatorship) or economic ones (appeasing the desires of the consumer). And yet, according to González, unlike Borges’s 1930s critique of Nazism in “Tlön” or his later praise for Francisco Franco’s or Jorge Rafael Videla’s Fascism, I argue that the claim to autonomy in Zambra’s text serves as a rejection of neoliberal orthodoxy. Citing the ways in which autonomy has been used for different political ends, González writes, “The problem perhaps lies in that the concept of autonomy can be used to defend diametrically opposed political ideologies.” This gives rise to a crucial question: What is the relationship between an artwork’s claim to autonomy and politics? It also raises two other questions, which are not explicitly González’s, but are nonetheless related: Why should we defend autonomy when it isn’t exactly a politics? And why should we defend autonomy today if it can’t defend our politics?

Although Borges does not factor significantly in my book, González is correct to suggest that the Argentine writer does offer us a productive way of thinking through these questions. As is well known, Borges’s politics changed over time, but his conception of fiction as an autonomous space mostly did not. This conception of autonomy clashed with that of many scholars, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, who believed that Latin American literature needed to be politically engaged. In a more recent moment, marked by the consolidation of neoliberalism (which authoritarian rule forcefully ushered in) and the commodification of art, for many on the cultural Left the suspicion about aesthetic autonomy has only intensified. But if autonomy has been increasingly viewed with suspicion, the emphasis on readerly experience is understood as a form of resistance to neoliberalism. This emphasis is valued because it highlights a form of agency that could be read as directed against the supremacy of the market. Yet, what looks like a resistance to the market turns out, under closer investigation, to be a kind of endorsement of it. As Nicholas Brown correctly points out, for capitalism, the crucial thing about the commodity is not whether it is being used for any purpose the seller may have intended for it. If the seller intends to make a chair to be sat on and the consumer instead decides to hang it on the wall or put it in the shed, this is not necessarily a problem for the market, which is concerned more with the commodity being bought and sold. The consumer’s desires and interests trump whatever the seller’s intentions are. To imagine that the consumer is wrong for hanging the chair on the wall is to fail to understand that there is no right or wrong for the market. Whatever the consumer thinks or does with the object, from the perspective of the market, is his business.5 But put in these terms it’s not difficult to see how this commitment to readerly experience, while not exactly following the activist logic outlined above—insofar as the reader is no longer understood as a kind of witness—ends up in almost exactly the same place by redescribing disagreement (right or wrong interpretations) about what the text means into difference. It is only slightly different insofar as it presents a clearer vision of where the commitment to difference without disagreements gets you, which is right back to the consumer and the supremacy of the market. On this account, the primacy of the reader looks less like a critique of the market than the market’s version of how to do literary theory, where the multiplicity of meanings and indeterminacy of interpretations gives rise to endless opportunities for the reader/activist/consumer to determine what the object is. From this position, Zambra’s metafictional narrative, which insists on an autonomous aesthetic space by remaining indifferent to the reader/activist/consumer’s desires, seems less like an escape from politics than a direct confrontation with politics, or at least an attempt to challenge neoliberal orthodoxy. In other words, the assertion of aesthetic form in Zambra’s text—which requires disagreements about what the text’s means—begins to look less like Borges’s critique of Nazism than an opportunity to think beyond neoliberalism.

This last point hinges on a central claim of my book, that autonomy is never a turn away from politics but rather marks the very substance of politics within art. It is interesting to note that the ending of Borges’s “Tlön” affirms precisely this point. As suggested, Tlön could be read as a metaphor for the Nazis. But what about the narrator when he declares, “I pay no attention to all this?” It would be right to say that this too can be read, as González does, as a critique of those who turn a blind eye to totalitarian systems of rule. But much more striking, I think, about the statement “I pay no attention to all this” is that it serves ultimately to thematize what we might call a politics of autonomy. But how does this work? One must first consider that it is not as if the narrator is not paying attention at all; instead he is paying attention to the work of art. The narrator is treating the object at hand as something that demands a form of attention that we would describe as aesthetic. Here, Borges’s text offers what appears to be a contradiction about paying attention to the work of art. On one hand, that the fictional narrator pays attention to the work of art is understood as a criticism of those who turn away from political concerns. On the other hand, for us as readers, paying attention to the work of art is how we interpret its political meaning (e.g., “Tlön” is a cautionary tale about those who turn a blind eye to totalitarianism). Aesthetic judgement, in the first instance, is considered problematic, in the second, it is understood as a necessity. Yet, this contradiction vanishes once we recognize that Borges’s text is most interested in demonstrating not only that art and politics work at different levels, but also and more importantly, that the meaning of “Tlön” (again, González’s reading, but not just his) can only be obtained by insisting on its status as a work of art. This insistence, however, does not mean a prohibition against a political reading of “Tlön” as a critique of Nazism would be utterly unrecognizable if we didn’t consider events that were happening in Europe in the 1930s. The point is instead that it is under close scrutiny of the work of art that this interpretation becomes available. Which is just to say that for us as readers, paying attention to the work of art is not a turn away from the political, but rather that which makes a political interpretation of the text possible in the first place. Thus in “Tlön” the fictional narrator, by paying attention to the work of art, also points to its very requirement for aesthetic judgement, which, in turn, does not deny but rather allows for us as readers to produce this political reading. “Tlön,” in other words, thematizes a claim to autonomy, revealing that aesthetic judgment is not the negation of the political but rather one way of making the political legible within the work of art.

This does not mean that the work of art is interchangeable with politics, much less with political organization and mobilization. As we also recall, “Tlön” ends precisely with the elimination of the barrier between the fictional and the real, so that the two become indistinguishable. It would be wrong, however, to think from this narrative reduction that we, as readers and critics, can physically enter into the text to stop Tlön’s invasion; it would also be wrong to think that we could enter “Tlön” to stop a Nazi takeover. It is wrong not because our interpretation of the text does not make us worry or feel concerned about an impending Nazi invasion. Nor is it because the text cannot teach, inspire, or even persuade us to mobilize against this invasion. It is wrong because the work of art, as a mediated object, requires that these feelings and ideas be understood as an upshot of our interpretations of the text’s meaning. Put in this way, we can also understand why aesthetic judgment could be understood as a barrier to political organization and mobilization. Aesthetic judgment requires that we turn toward a text in order to interpret it, while political organization and mobilization do not. For this reason, it is quite understandable (even necessary) to think—especially as we witness mass uprisings in the United States and across the globe—of aesthetic judgment as distinct from political organization and mobilization. Nevertheless, it should be noted that critical approaches to art that aim at blurring the lines between art and politics do not bring us any closer to political organization and mobilization, either. In many ways, insofar as these approaches insist on the dedifferentiation between art and politics, they offer a built-in defense against organizing and mobilizing, since reading now becomes political in the same way. The claim to autonomy, instead, makes evident the limitations of theory and criticism. But if autonomy (and heteronomy) can never replace real political organization and mobilization, there is nothing about the politics of autonomy that stops us from getting out and mobilizing.

I do not want to suggest here that autonomy is intrinsically on the left or the right of the political spectrum. Nor do I mean to imply that Borges’s “Tlön” is actually critiquing neoliberalism. In fact, the claim to autonomy as a critique of neoliberalism in Zambra’s Bonsái or Bolaño’s Estrella distante would be somewhat unrecognizable to Borges. This brings us to the question of why the claim to autonomy now counts as a critique of neoliberalism. Perhaps the answer begins to emerge if we ask another question: Does my account of autonomy not simply reaffirm the rather banal notion that it is through art that we come to understand the world and perhaps imagine alternatives to it? There are only a few truths about art that seem more commonplace than this; unless, of course, one is committed to the idea that the statement is not at all true, but false or at least misplaced. Indeed, the dominant political discourse in Latin Americanism is the notion that the work of art is reducible to a politics, to a commodity, or it is compromised or impure. But this dominant discourse, as I have suggested, ends up endorsing rather than critiquing neoliberal orthodoxy. But it is precisely because neoliberal orthodoxy demands this worldview that claims to autonomy become especially important to defend in Latin Americanism today. To this point, I would like to return to the statement that González presents in his review that “The problem perhaps lies in the fact that the concept of autonomy can be used to defend diametrically opposed political ideologies.” If I understand his use of the word “problem” correctly, it is not necessarily that González subscribes to the dominant discourse within Latin Americanism, but rather that the “problem” is akin to that of the agnostic: I have not fully persuaded him that autonomy has any relevance for Leftist criticism in the contemporary moment. This, I believe, is also connected to another limitation that González raises about how the book leaves out a rich history of Marxist criticism. I agree with González that including more criticism might have strengthened the historical case for autonomy, making it more persuasive. I also recognize that dialoguing more with figures such as Lukács, Brecht, or Adorno would have helped better contextualize the relationship between politics and aesthetics. Adorno, in particular, would help elucidate how my claim to autonomy offers a political reading that was unavailable in the modernist period. Here it would be important to emphasize—and Brown’s recent book Autonomy makes this point quite convincingly—that Adorno’s defense of modernism (or even Borges’s commitment to autonomy and Puig’s critique of it) emerge in a period in which capitalism’s reach still had not become entirely universal. Today, however, capitalism has no other. Perhaps from this assumption, the very desire for the reduction between art and politics is understandable. Nonetheless, understanding literature as only political or as only a commodity like any other is not a rupture with the status quo, it is the status quo. Or to turn this around, the assertion of the aesthetic frame does not offer a possible challenge to neoliberal orthodoxy unless this orthodoxy already assumes that art is nothing other than the commodity. What this means is that we find ourselves in a period where claims to autonomy offer political possibilities that were unavailable to Adorno, Borges, and Puig.

It may seem that we are far from the human rights framework laid out above. But not really. If in the first moment the work is understood as an instrument that tortures you, in the second it is an instrument that is sold to you. While the first instance is certainly more violent and coercive than the second, the violence and coercion is no different in the desire for the work of art to be transformed into a series of effects directed at the subject. But if you are treating a text as if it were nothing more than a series of effects, then what are the ways that the text can challenge neoliberalism? There are none. Where does this leave Latin Americanism? If art is no longer understood as a space of disagreement, then criticism is no longer a space for alternatives. Instead, we are forced to accept the neoliberal world as it is given. And yet, there is still compelling art in spite of our desires, our politics, ourselves. And this truth is the first step to moving beyond the unfreedom of neoliberalism that generally holds sway over Latin American criticism today.


1.  I would like to thank José Eduardo González for his sincere and intelligent review. This response stems from an engaging conversation that began in early 2019 when González invited me to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to give a talk on some recent work. I am grateful to nonsite for offering the opportunity to continue this conversation here and to address what I see as some of the larger concerns in Latin Americanism today.
2.  Pierre Nora, “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire,” Representations 26, Special Issue: Memory and Counter-Memory (Spring 1989): 7–24.
3.  See Walter Benn Michaels, The Shape of the Signifier: 1967 to the End of History (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2004).
4.  Jorge Luis Borges, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” in Ficciones, ed. Anthony Kerrigan (New York: Grove Press, 1962), 34.
5.  See Nicholas Brown, Autonomy: The Social Ontology of Art under Capitalism (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2019).
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