Monday, January 26, 2009


Further to discussions about the field of Latin American literary and cultural studies, Gareth Williams has kindly made available his essay "Deconstruction and Subaltern Studies, or, a Wrench in the Latin Americanist Assembly Line" (.pdf file). This is the English version of his contribution to Hernán Vidal's Treinta años de estudios literarios/culturales latinoamericanistas en los Estados Unidos, a book which, as I have noted, is not easy to obtain.

Williams's essay does many things: it provides a counter-history of the Latin American studies group, its demise, and the subsequent "end of the alliances"; it is an argument for the role of deconstruction and against the ideological misreadings of deconstruction within Latin Americanism; and it is an empassioned plea for a new relation to the field.

Three brief quotations, then. First, a salutary caution about any declaration of manifestos:
The last twenty years have coincided with the full-blown consolidation of the neoliberal corporate university in the United States and beyond. In this time I have been struck by the way U.S.-based Latin Americanism has succumbed increasingly to the false authority of phrases such as “what we need to do . . . ” or “what should be done is . . .” which are repeated with disconcerting ease in both writings and professional meetings alike. Of course, what these sentences generally do is function as stand-ins for actual conceptual labor, and it is perfectly understandable that Latin Americanists based in Latin America, for example, should take umbrage at such phrases since they are by no means completely disconnected from the far reaching babble of contemporary corporate arrogance. (2-3)
Second, another account of the "end of the alliances":
At the Latin American Studies Association International Conference that took place in Washington D.C. in early September 2001, Néstor García Canclini announced the “end of the alliance” between the varying strands contained within the Latin American cultural studies paradigm. I do not mean he inaugurated the end of that alliance. I think he was merely responding to the fact that university discourse on Latin America, in all its distinct registers and loci of enunciation, had definitively succumbed to the corporate logics of market forces; that is, that Latin Americanism had embraced the commodity fetishism of its own thought and language, without further ado, and had become nothing more than market force and competition in action. Needless to say, without a commitment to collective theoretical reflection this situation will not improve, because the alternative is that prospective students to Ph.D. programs who ask questions such as “Does your department do postcolonial theory?” will be perfectly justified in reproducing the banal competition of the Latin Americanist assembly line. (20)
And third, a discussion of the "decision for vitality" that faces us:
It is up to all of us to assume responsibility for, or to turn our backs on, the practical and theoretical decision for the struggle of the part of those who have no part (and, therefore, for philosophy as class struggle at the theoretical level). We can decide for the positivity of the police or decide for affirmative political subjectification. Make no mistake, it is a vital decision, a decision for vitality, or not, in which the future lasts forever with or without us. The decision for the future, indeed, the decision that there be a future for the democratic practice of a theoretical politics of culture in Latin Americanism, is, in this regard, yours, ours, for the taking. That decision for the future, within the context of the corporate police university, is a decision for real philosophical and political responsibility toward Latin America and its truth, in theory and in practice. It is a decision for something other than the reduction of thought to the technical reproduction of our corporate police order and its ideas. (54-55)
Beyond this, I won't summarize the entire essay; I urge you to read it.

Moreover, in the particular context of this blog, the essay is also important in that it offers a strong defence of at least one version of "posthegemony," drawing on Alberto Moreiras's The Exhaustion of Difference. I have outlined my own differences with Gareth and Alberto's versions of posthegemony elsewhere (.pdf file), so I won't do so again at length now. I'll merely note that here, Gareth also takes up Rancière's distinction between police and politics, rightly (I think) arguing that projects for hegemony are always in the end police actions, rather than politics strictu sensu. But his suggestion seems to be that politics in this sense is always democratic; i.e. that the state always and only works through "police thought’s calculated management and distribution of places, powers, functions, locations and loci of enunciation" (52).

I beg to differ, and indeed would point to Gareth's own marvelous analysis of the "Atlacatl affect" in The Other Side of the Popular as evidence to the contrary. In this analysis, Gareth shows how the elite Atlacatl battalion of the Salvadoran army, responsible for the El Mozote massacre among other grievous war crimes, equally incarnated an excess that went beyond any logic of distribution or calculation. And of course, we see precisely such excess in, say, Guantánamo, or indeed anywhere and everywhere else the state imprints itself on our bodies. To put this another way, the state, too, is posthegemonic; it is not a question of positing a putatively liberating posthegemony against a stultifying hegemony. Of course, we need to be done with the concept of hegemony, but that in itself is not enough. Posthegemony opens up the terrain on which the grounds of politics and policing alike are disputed by multiple actors. A politics of affirmation is not exhausted by deconstruction and its "the negative work it carries out against hegemony" (46).

Or to put things in still other terms, the more local ones of the discussion of the field of Latin Americanism: it is surely not enough simply to put a "wrench in the Latin Americanist assembly line." That assembly line also works by breaking down, by breaking up alliances and cutting the wind from our sails. Heck, sometimes we must surely all want the university to be a place of rational calculation. But each and every day we can come up with evidence that it is anything but. Hence a politics of knowledge must also go beyond critique, even beyond the most rigorous and unflinching critique provided by deconstruction.

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