Deconstruction and Latinamericanism, Reconsidered (A Propos John Beverley’s Latinamericanism after 9/11)
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John Beverley’s Latinamericanism after 9/11 (Duke UP 2011) is a provocative account of some of the primary tendencies of how Latin America has been thought over the past decade. Its method is cartographic, in both the good and bad senses of the word. The book aims to create a map that we can move around in as a means of seeking critical perspectives on the field of Latin Americanism and the task of criticism in general. The project unquestionably originates from a commitment to intellectual engagement, and some simplification is necessary for pragmatic reasons. However, there are times when Beverley oversimplifies his interlocutors, turning their works into landmarks that contrast, in their putative fixity and backwardness, with what he considers to be true critical and political progress. In these cases, the effort to engage in scholarly exchange threatens to turn into caricature.
This happens perhaps most strikingly in the chapter “Deconstruction and Latinamericanism (Apropos Alberto Moreiras’s The Exhaustion of Difference)”. Behind this chapter reverberates a long history of conversations about the relationship between deconstruction and Latin America, including many between Beverley and Moreiras. Unfortunately, Beverley’s chapter appears to be more of a repudiation of those conversations than a continuation of them. (Moreiras has responded with his own repudiation of Beverley’s repudiation in “The Fatality of [My] Subalternism: A Response to John Beverley.”)
Beverley acknowledges that his chapter on Latin Americanism and deconstruction, as well as the book as a whole, repeats some ideas from Román de la Campa’s Latin Americanism, which was similarly critical of deconstruction (Beverley 1, 132n.). Beverley justifies such a repetition by virtue of the fact that he is writing a full decade later, after the publication of The Exhaustion of Difference, yet he fails to mention any of the published critiques of de la Campa’s book, such as Brett Levinson’s “The Bind Between Deconstruction and Subalternity” and Gareth Williams’s “La deconstrucción y el subalternismo,” both of which address concerns raised anew by Beverley.
Beverley rejects deconstruction on the grounds that it is insufficiently political; that it is “cosmopolitan” or European, and consequently out of touch with the realities of Latin America; and that it is unable to “interrogate adequately its own conditions of possibility” since it is “produced by and feeds back into the logic of globalization” (54). These concerns echo de la Campa’s almost point for point. De la Campa describes deconstruction as a “utopian...practice whose link with the life-world and other forms of culture remains quite distant, if not wholly unreconciled,” and which is “bound to a literary form of epistemology that is far removed even from the cultural politics implicit in its own epistemological challenges to modernity” (4, 14-15). He also somewhat preposterously calls it the “lingua franca of globalization” (2). In what follows, I will address these claims—about deconstruction’s relationship to globalization, politics, difference, and literature—concurring with Levinson and Williams that they seem to ignore the basic premises of deconstruction.
Beverley and de la Campa contend that deconstruction forms part of the logic of globalization, or at best does not offer much resistance to it. There is no doubt that there can be no absolute autonomy of any form of criticism from market forces, especially not within contemporary university systems, with their increasingly corporate structures and the competition engendered from shrinking pools of resources. In “The Future of the Profession or the University Without Condition (thanks to the humanities, what could take place tomorrow)”, Derrida argues that any criticism deserving of the name must unconditionally affirm the possibility of critical autonomy, at the same time that it recognizes the institutional and economic forces that limit it. Although not all forms of criticism make such recognition formal (it would be tiresome indeed to incorporate an investigation into the economic structures underlying our professional spaces into every critical project), he argues that the critical practice that has come to be called deconstruction takes such limitations as a starting point for its critique.
This brings us to the central question of deconstruction’s relationship to politics. De la Campa, conflating deconstruction with the conservative thinking of Roberto González Echeverría, denies that there is any, or at least any that would be relevant to Latin America. Beverley is more conflicted, having by his account maintained a “‘fraternal’ relation with deconstruction” through his past association with subaltern studies (9). In Latinamericanism after 9/11, he explains that he has severed such ties, having come to the conclusion that “deconstruction is yielding diminishing and politically ambiguous returns,” and may, in fact, lead “out of politics altogether” (9, 51). Such a declaration is far from surprising, and seems to reflect more of a change in attitude than a change in perspective.
It is in fact hard to think of any work less influenced by deconstruction than Beverley’s. In the present book, as in his previous books, his approach to politics revolves around a straightforward understanding of the people and praxis, immune to forces of alterity that disrupt and confound representation. Against what he characterizes as an “overvaluation of intellectual and cultural critique” that he associates with deconstruction and with Moreiras’s work in particular, he defines “the form of the political as such” in terms of identity and solidarity, which can be approached by studying Latin American “forms of knowledge, culture, agency, and value” that lie outside of urban middle- and upper-middle-class culture: “something...like what the Argentine philosopher Rudolfo Kusch understood by ‘popular thinking’—that is, a space of concrete quotidian struggles, informed by ideas about identity, history, self, and community that deconstruction would feel obliged to find aporetic” (5, 54-55). Beverley asserts that deconstruction, to the extent that it has any relevance at all, must keep to the sidelines: “Deconstruction can march alongside these struggles and ideas...but it cannot act in their place” (55).
The ideal of popular thinking that Beverley espouses here is rooted in the notion of presence, in both the temporal and spatial senses of the word. “The people” are present: here (that is, in Latin America) and now. Their identity is self-formed, perhaps not without conflict, but it is identity nonetheless, and anyone not part of their self-definition can confirm and support their identity in solidarity, or risk becoming their enemy. Derrida has described such a structure of identity as immunological, effectively defending itself against foreign infiltration that might be dangerous to its integrity. It creates a sense of security by sacrificing what is not included in the understanding of self.
As Beverley rightly observes, deconstruction feels obliged to disturb this sense of self-security, to uncover the structure of sacrifice it is based on, including a sacrifice of others—those who do not conform to the delimitations of identity based on place and the present—as well as of an alterity or unknowability that is both internal and external, and which can never be fully represented. This is a vital concern of deconstructive thinking, and it is an intrinsically political one. The structure of immunity and its disruptions, both internal (auto-immunity describes the internal dissolution of autonomy) and external, constitutes what Derrida calls “the enigma of the political” (Rogues 4). Deconstruction addresses this enigma by focusing on the building blocks of the political world, including, in Beverley’s words, “ideas about identity, history, self, and community”. When Derrida addresses popular politics more explicitly, for instance in Rogues, he describes “the people” as a force that disturbs immunological claims by definition. The ultimately unknowable force of the people (the kratos of the demos, to refer to the Greek roots of the word “democracy”) introduces aporia or undecidability to every question pertaining to popular politics. Undecidability is not antithetical to action: deconstruction draws attention to the contingencies and aporias intrinsic to any action, and underscores the fact that they remain “caught, lodged like a ghost” in every action, but Derrida is adamant that we must act decisively anyway, or risk becoming immobilized (“Force of Law” 253).
Deconstruction therefore resists the divergence described by Beverley of critique and action, including his contentions that deconstruction overvalues thinking to the extent that it eclipses any need to act, or that it constitutes an imperial action that would seek to displace local, popular action. Deconstruction is not something done instead of politics, but concerns decisions made from within political action. It also emphasizes action within critique itself. Whereas Beverley essentially relegates criticism to constative descriptions of popular political action, deconstruction seeks to perform a kind of action that consists of being open to actions or events not governed by knowledge and intention.
As part of their estimation that deconstruction is complicit with globalization, Beverley and de la Campa maintain that deconstruction ignores regional difference. Beverley goes so far as to call it a “project of radical dedifferentiation” (55). Countering Moreiras’s claim that identity politics bring about an “exhaustion of difference” he accuses him of engaging in a “tourist sublime,” an exoticizing sense of difference that is not grounded in local specificities (53). He levels this charge against Moreiras’s (and Levinson’s) description of Latin America as an encrucijada, a site of crossings that confounds the structure of identity. Far from the sense of astonishment before an inconceivable totality that is implied by the term sublime, Moreiras invokes the notion of crossing in relation to a theory of critical translation in which location, like Walter Benjamin’s sense of an original text, is understood as a site that is always already marked by crossing and difference. As in textual translation, translative crossings are inevitably related to an origin of sorts—that is, a specific regional, historical site—but that site is only a starting point for considering difference, not a foundation or horizon. Beverley seems to criticize Moreiras for both ignoring regional specificity and for over-valuing it, a charge that might well be seen as reflecting an aspect of Latin America itself: a part of Western culture that has its own specific histories, whose crossings and contradictions are perhaps more evident than in more established or ideologically saturated parts of the world.
Beverley’s critique of Moreiras’s notion of Latin America as an encrucijada appears to be an echo or adaptation of de la Campa’s critique of deconstruction via González-Echeverría’s Myth and Archive. De la Campa describes what he calls a “deconstructive master narrative” in González-Echeverría’s book: a “conflation of all of Latin America’s textuality as an archive governed by a Borgesian master code of all possible fictions, ...a totalizing figure of narrative recombinations meant to stand for Latin American history as such” (de la Campa 19-20). There are two interrelated critiques embedded in this description: first, that Latin Americanist deconstructive critique is too literary, and second, that it is a universalizing project that dissolves difference. As Williams says of González-Echeverría’s notion of the totalizing archive, it brings us closer to “la metafísica del humanismo filológico en Alfonso Reyes, por ejemplo, que de la crítica (o la deconstrucción) de la metafísica y su imperium conceptual en Jacques Derrida, Jean-Luc Nancy u otros” (Williams, “Deconstrucción” 233)—including Moreiras and, I might add, Borges himself, whose work never sought to provide a master code of all possible fictions. Beverley likens Moreiras’s idea of the encrucijada to another canonical literary figure, Alejo Carpentier, who, unlike Moreiras or Borges, celebrated Latin America’s crossings and peculiarities as the markers of a unique metaphysical aesthetic.
These analogies with literary figures raise the question of what literature is or does. For Beverley, as for de la Campa, deconstruction’s attention to literature is a feature of its utopian tendencies, reflecting a detachment from the exigencies of the real. Moreover, they believe that it comes dangerously close to repeating the elitist tendencies of national literary traditions that historically exalted literature as a privileged vehicle of national or regional identities. Beverley uses the term neo-Arielist, based on José Enrique Rodo’s Ariel (1900), to describe this kind of criticism. He explains the term thus: “It rests on an overestimation, colonial in origin, of the authority of written literature and the literary essay and an essentially Eurocentric sense of the cultural canon and aesthetic ‘value’” (20).
Although the term neo-Arielist would seem to imply a retrograde form of elitism, Beverley also includes a number of critics that could hardly be said to fit in that category. Among them are two prominent theorists of subaltern studies, Dipesh Chakrabarty and Gayatri Spivak, whom Beverley describes as privileging literature in a way that betrays the political component of their work. Beverley quotes from Spivak’s Death of a Discipline:
All around us is the claim for the rational destruction of the figure, the demand for not clarity but immediate comprehensibility by the ideological average. This destroys the force of literature as a cultural good. Anyone who believes that a literary education should still be sponsored by universities must allow that one must learn to read. And to learn to read is to learn to disfigure the undecidable figure into a responsible literality, again and again...Literature is what escapes the system; you cannot speed read it. The figure “is” irreducible. (quoted in Beverley 50)
Although some of what Spivak says might appear to resonate with Beverley’s account of neo-Arielism—for instance, the terms “cultural good” and “literary education”—her description of literature undermines such an appearance. Rather than upholding “the authority of written literature” and “aesthetic ‘value,’” Spivak appeals to the disfiguring nature of literature, that is, the distancing and denaturalizing effects of representation that indicates, or does not conceal, its own figurative—indirect, destabilizing—nature. Although Death of a Discipline focuses on literary texts and their place in academic institutions, she has made clear elsewhere that such an effect of representation is not limited to traditional forms of literature.
Beverley invokes the “supplementarity” of Spivak’s understanding of literature, that is, its excessive and potentially subversive nature vis-à-vis the ideological aesthetic of globalization (50). This term can be seen as operating symptomatically in Beverley’s text, since Arielism invokes literature in the classic sense of supplementarity, that is, as something that helps complete a whole, in this case an elitist construction of regional identity. Beverley seems to miss this dual sense of the term, failing to acknowledge that there are two fundamentally different approaches to literature in play: one that views it as supplementary of a metaphysical whole, and another that considers it to be potentially disruptive of the very idea of totality. In his critique of Spivak—and, by implication, all deconstruction—he conflates the two; or, which is perhaps the same thing, he denies any political relevance to the latter.
Beverley concedes that Moreiras does not share Spivak’s neo-Arielist discourse about literature as a cultural good, but suggests that he comes close to approximating neo-Arielism in his regard for “texts of modern Latin American art and literature...as forms of the political that transcend both the logic of neoliberal hegemony and a stunted and authoritarian (and ultimately unsuccessful) politics of the nationalist Left” (51). What stands out in this sentence is the word “transcend,” which evokes a superiority that leaves actual politics, good and bad, in the dust, and floats up to an ideal realm where politics can be contemplated in pure form. Just as Spivak does not consider literature as a classic supplement of a whole, so Moreiras does not imagine it as transcendental, with the hierarchy and mutually excluding binaries that that implies. Rather than transcending neoliberalism and national populism, Moreiras might say that literature translates them, or brings out their translative and supplementary aspects, the traces of excess, difference, incompletion, and absence that “actual politics” tend to suppress.
My aim in this short essay has been to affirm that a deconstructive attention to these translative traces, disruptions, and disfigurations has much to offer a thinking of Latin America, notwithstanding Beverley and de la Campa’s denunciations. To refer again to Beverley’s bellicose metaphor, deconstruction and “actual politics” can indeed march side by side, mutually informing and unforming one another, providing different approaches to the same problems and rousing one another from lapsing into self-satisfied complacency. In the case of deconstruction, such complacency would lead to the abandonment of its political core, whereas in the case of “actual politics,” it can open the door to the sinister consequences of essentialism.
Beverley seems to allow momentarily for some compatibility between the two toward the end of his chapter. He writes, “Moreiras is no doubt pointing to a kind of politics...that would be genuinely transformative of what we can be as human beings” (59). However, he adds, “to get to that point, a more conventional politics of some sort is necessary.” Clearly this division between “conventional politics” and “genuine transformation,” between the present and the future, does not really name a compatibility, but rather reinforces a hierarchy in which the present is the domain of the real, and the future a space of transcendence, a beyond that may or may not have any concrete effect on the urgencies of today. Eschewing this atemporal hierarchy, I would agree (as I imagine Moreiras would) that deconstruction names a demand for genuine transformation, but that it is a transformation not of a distant future but of a dynamic historicity that does not exclude the present. Although Beverley ends up renouncing any compatibility between Latin American deconstructionists and politics—“despite their claim to be ‘transformative,’ they remain complicit with the existing order of things” (59)— this renunciation may itself be transformed, if not by Beverley, then by others committed to political action and thought in Latin America.
Beverley refers to Williams’ essay in his final chapter (112), in relationship to the subaltern, but there is no reference of it in the chapter on deconstruction, in spite of Williams’ critique of de la Campa. Incidentally, although deconstruction is hardly the focus of Beverley’s book, it appears almost symptomatically on the first and last pages of the book (1, 143), in addition to being the central concern of chapter 3.
My use of quotation marks in the expression “the people” is intended to indicate the indefinite and indeterminable quality of lo popular, in contrast to Beverley’s use of the term. See Gareth William’s The Other Side of the Popular for a thorough discussion of this question—one that makes reference to Beverley’s work on more than one occasion.
Derrida employs the term “immunity” in a number of texts, primarily “Faith and Knowledge” and Rogues. Martin Hägglund observes that the idea is not exclusive to his later work (19). In “Faith and Knowledge,” Derrida describes the auto-immune reaction as a “principle of sacrificial self-destruction ruining the principle of self-protection” (87).
Beverley identifies what he calls an anti-foundationalist populism in Moreiras’s work, a term that I find nicely descriptive. However, he links this idea to Laclau’s notion of populist reason, which is considerably less radical than Moreiras’s. Laclau’s interest in the contingency of collectives and the instability of representation is primarily strategic. For him, only collectives that have formed a hegemonic structure are worthy of the name; he has rejected the idea that there can be any political valence to the subaltern, that is, the translative forces (voices, traces, etc.) that have not yet been formed into representation.
Part of what comes to the present, incidentally, is the past, including very significantly the last quarter of the twentieth century in Latin America, in spite of Beverley’s contention that continued attention to this period is an expression of melancholy: that is, an escape from the politically charged present into an atemporal past in which deconstruction seemed relevant (55). As someone who has written and continues to write about this period, I want to stress that I approach it, as do many others, not as a distraction from the present, but as a textually rich, readerly period from which to interrogate the present, whose readerly sites are not always easily apparent. In this sense I understand textuality and reading not as strictly literary terms, but as sites of encounter through which the crossings and disruptions that form and transform the very possibility of the political can emerge. On this point see Susana Draper’s excellent article “The Question of Awakening in Postdictatorship Times,” in which she contrasts Idelber Avelar’s emphasis in The Untimely Present on the allegorical configuration of defeat, to a reading of disjunction that points (as a kind of awakening, in a Benjaminian sense) to possibilities not exhausted by previous manifestations or traditional notions of the Left.
- Beverley, John. Latinamericanism after 9/11. Durham: Duke UP, 2011. http://dx.doi.org/10.1215/9780822394686
- de la Campa, Román. Latin Americanism. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1999.
- Derrida, Jacques. “Faith and Knowledge”. Trans. Samuel Weber. Acts of Religion, Ed. Gil Anidjar. London: Routledge, 2002. 40-101.
- ———. “Force of Law”. Trans. Mary Quaintance. Acts of Religion Ed. Gil Anidjar, London: Routledge, 2002. 228-98.
- ———. Rogues: Two Essays on Reason. Trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2005.
- ———. “The Future of the Profession or the University Without Condition (thanks to the humanities, what could take place tomorrow)”. Trans. Peggy Kamuf. Jacques Derrida and the Humanities: A Critical Reader. Ed. Tom Cohen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. 24-37.
- Draper, Susana. “The Question of Awakening in Postdictatorship Times: Reading Walter Benjamin with Diamela Eltit.” Discourse 32 (2010): 87-116.
- González-Echeverría, Roberto. Myth and Archive: A Theory of Latin American Narrative. Durham: Duke UP, 1998.
- Hägglund, Martin. Radical Atheism: Derrida and the Time of Life. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2008.
- Levinson, Brett. “The Bind Between Deconstruction and Subalternity.” The Ends of Literature: The Latin American “Boom” in the Neoliberal Marketplace. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2001. 169-91
- Moreiras, Alberto. The Exhaustion of Difference: The Politics of Latin American Cultural Studies. Durham: Duke UP, 2001. http://dx.doi.org/10.1215/9780822380597
- ———. “The Fatality of (My) Subalternism: A Response to John Beverley.” New Centennial Review 12 (2012): 217-246.
- Spivak, Gayatri. The Death of a Discipline. New York: Columbia UP, 2003.
- Williams, Gareth. “La deconstrucción y el subalternismo.” Treinta años de estudios literarios/culturales latinoamericanistas en los Estados Unidos. Ed. Hernán Vidal. Pittsburgh: Instituto Internacional de Literatura Iberoamericana, 2008. 221-55.
- ———. The Other Side of the Popular: Neoliberalism and Subalternity in Latin America. Durham: Duke UP, 2002.