Wednesday, January 21, 2009


Following my recent post on Ryan Long's Fictions of Totality... I suggested to a few friends that we could perhaps make this something of a "book event" or online seminar. Others are welcome to join in, of course. So people are getting hold of the book, and there should be some more posts and comments to amplify and develop the discussion.

I hope that at some later point we can organize similar online book events or mini-seminars on some of the other books I mentioned, such as Legras's and Schiwy's, and perhaps also, for instance, Erin Graff Zinn's Wandering Signifier or Kate Jenckes's Reading Borges after Benjamin.

In the meantime, however, it's Ryan who's the focus of our attention. I therefore asked him if he could write a short introduction to the book to help orient us. Here it is...

This is a guest post by Ryan Long, author of Fictions of Totality: The Mexican Novel, 1968, and the National-Popular State.

"Fictions of Totality"

First, thanks to Jon for taking a look at my book and for starting this discussion! Thanks in advance also to anyone else who's interested in reading and discussing it. Now, a brief synopsis...

My book began as an effort to ask a very specific question: how did the Massacre of Tlatelolco affect the Mexican novel? I still feel that this is the question my book best answers, and thus its major contribution will probably be, if to anything, to Mexicanist literary studies. Of course it is also my hope that it addresses concerns that go beyond the historical context that limited, and thus defined, my analysis. A sub-purpose of the book is to provide analyses of well-known and lesser-known novels that merit further discussion. The former include La región más transparente, the only canonical novel in the book and the only to be translated into English, José Trigo, and Morir en el golfo. Con Él, conmigo, con nosotros tres has practically vanished from literary histories and criticism, which may have more to do with its author's militancy in the PRI than with the book itself. Si muero lejos de ti, though fascinating and incredibly ambitious, is long, unwieldy, strange, and a little tiresome at times, so it has also flown under the radar, so to speak, more than it should have. (Though Rebecca Biron has done great work on it). In short, then, I think one of my book's strengths is its literary analysis, organized in chapters that could stand alone to a degree.

But, there is an arc, which is the relationship between totalizing representation and the national-popular state, and this arc is what expands the scope of the book beyond the Mexican context and the novels in question. My argument is that the national-popular state provided a fertile context for a certain degree of optimism regarding the novel's ability to render the social totality, and that this state form's decline is registered in novels that begin to question totalizing representation more and more intensely. So, I posit a teleology both in terms of state form and novelistic structure, ambition, and desire (i.e., respectively, perspectivism, totality, and optimism). What I posit in order to avoid adopting an entirely teleological position is that the novel is always already undermining its own totalizing ambitions and desires. Teleology returns in my argument that the violent foundations of totalizing representation that, I argue, necessarily underpin any totalizing effort become more and move visible over time, as, in the Mexican example, state violence permeates the middle- and intellectual-classes in a way that it did not before 1968.

Accomplishments of recent authors, like Juan Villoro, and the recent fame of authors no longer writing, like Roberto Bolaño, raise interesting questions about the viability of my argument regarding the novel's decline. Jon has raised these questions in his response to my first comment on his blog. I have to admit to not having read Bolaño yet, but it is my understanding that 2666, for example, goes far beyond the Mexican context in terms of its thematics. Juan Villoro's El testigo does as well, though I am sure not to the same degree as 2666. Another recent totalizing novel, Porque parece mentira la verdad nunca se sabe, by Sada, focuses to a great deal on the US-Mexican border, a theme almost invisible in previous totalizing novels. The novels I analyze in my book are almost exclusively focused on Mexico, events that take place in Mexico and discussions of Mexican identity that still aim to define Mexico primarily on its own terms, as Ramos and Paz did so famously in their mid-century essays on Mexican identity.

Does my book fit into Jon's arguments about posthegemony? Perhaps not that easily: I contend that the debt crisis of the early 80s and 1968 indeed mark key critical moments in a progressive decline in the national-popular state's hegemony, if not necessarily the PRI's. De la Madrid's and Salinas's fiscal and monetary reforms dismantled social programs and political structures that had long been the pillars of the national-popular state. Thus, the PRI's tenacity can be separated from the national-popular state ideology that once defined it. Regarding the decline of the novel, I contend that the totalizing novel with an almost exclusive, if not obsessive, national focus, is a thing of the past. So, there is a post- to a hegemony that once existed.

Let the discussion begin!

This has been a guest post from Ryan Long.

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