Tuesday, September 20, 2011


If Borges continually returned to his first book of poetry, endlessly tinkering with it and republishing it in slightly different form so that it would truly prefigure "everything that he would do afterwards" (Obras completas 33), his approach to his first book of prose was quite different. He refused to allow Inquisiciones ("Inquisitions," 1925) to be reprinted, and indeed the story goes that he bought up old copies so that nobody else could get their hands on them. This book, and the two following collections of essays that Borges treated with equal disdain, circulated in grubby photocopies, passed between fans like underground Samizdat. It was only after the author's death that his widow permitted their official republication.

So Borges seemed to want to expunge these early essays from his literary career. And yet he named his most famous book of essays, published over a quarter of a century later, in 1952, Otras inquisiciones: "Other Inquisitions," a title that alludes to the existence of the earlier book, however much he had tried to repress its memory. As James Irby notes, the later collection's
curiously ancillary title is therefore ambiguous and ironic. "Other" can mean "more of the same": more efforts doomed to eventual error, perhaps, but certainly more quests or inquiries into things, according to the etymology. But "other" is also "different," perhaps even "opposite." ("Introduction" to Other Inquisitions)
Why would Borges want to turn his back on these initial forays into prose? They are, perhaps, too florid and baroque for the mature author's taste. The language employed is formal, complex, and often almost archaic. But I don't think it's merely a matter of style--which could in any case be amended, as with the early poems. I suspect it's more a matter, as Rose Corral argues, of Borges wanting to distance himself from his early "criollismo," that nationalist strain within his work that sought "to recover and at the same time transform the great Argentine tradition of oral literature, that is, the gauchesque" ("Acerca del 'Primer Borges'" 158). In the 1930s and 1940s, Borges will transform himself into the great cosmopolitan intellectual, best-known for his "games with erudition, his mix of authentic and apocryphal citations, his astonishing mosaic of allusions, his universalism as an imaginative strategy, his literary fabrications" (158). Such a transformation required the suppression of his initial Inquisitions.

Yet Borges never completely abandons the criollista strain in his work (we will see the continued obsession with violence and primitivism in a story such as "El Sur," for instance), and equally it is not as though the other, cosmopolitan and erudite, Borges is missing from this early collection. Far from it. So if there are two Borges ("Borges and I"), it's not so much a matter of a split between "early" and "late," but more a tension that is present throughout his career. We can trace a constant play between on the one hand what we might call the "materialist" Borges whose avatar is the tight-lipped gaucho and, on the other, the rather more familiar "deconstructionist" Borges whose figure would be the labyrinth of linguistic signifiers in constant flux.

Of course, this divide is immediately complicated (and to some extent undone) by the fact that the gaucho is very much a literary creation, a mythic apparition, and that Borges is always fascinated by the possibility of giving solidly material form to his verbal jeux d'ésprit.

Meanwhile, another (and perhaps not unrelated) characteristically Borgesian tension becomes visible within Inquisiciones: the presence of a strikingly singular tone or "voice," which articulates a series of arguments that withdraw any claim to that voice.

To put this another way: it's quite remarkable how fearless Borges is in these literary "inquisitions." He covers a huge swathe of cultural territory, from the Spanish Golden Age poet Francisco de Quevedo or the relatively obscure seventeenth-century English author Sir John Browne, to paragons of European modernism such as James Joyce, Miguel de Unamuno, or Ramón Gómez de la Serna, as well as Argentine and Uruguayan writers Hilario Ascasubi or Fernán Silva Valdés. In each case, the young Borges is unwavering in the self-confidence of his own critical judgments and achievements: "Quevedo is, above all, intensity" (48); "I am the first Hispanic adventurer to have reached Joyce's book" (22); "Silva Valdés [. . .] is the first young poet to bring together Hispanic culture as a whole" (69).

And yet if, in these somewhat swashbuckling (some might say pompous...) raids on the literary canon, Borges is happy to talk about "Hispanic culture as a whole" ("la conjunta hispanicidad"), elsewhere, and no less stylishly or unremittingly, he undercuts the notion that we can speak even of "the self as a whole" ("el yo del conjunto," 93). Borges categorizes, judges, dissects, and dispatches: he puts other writers in their place. But the "I" that makes these judgments is always somehow out of reach. It's no longer, it seems, even a matter of "Borges and I": Borges may remain, a literary figure associated with a series of definitive judgements; but the "I" fades away or, better, fails ever to coalesce in the first place.

The clearest instance of this tension is perhaps found in "La nadería de la personalidad" ("The Nothingness of Personality"). Here, like a refrain, Borges repeatedly claims that "There is no such coherent I" (93, 94, 96, 98, 103) and that "The I does not exist" (102). And yet these adamant declarations can only be made by an "I" that insists on the coherence of the case that it is making. The first three sentences, for instance, all begin with verbs in the first person singular: "I want [. . .]. I think [. . .] I want [. . .]" (92). The self is nothing, but this essay--and indeed the entire collection of essays--only finds coherence precisely in the presumption of an articulate self defined in terms of stylistic brillo and argumentative panache.

And does this second tension map onto the first? Is it not the essence of the Argentine criollo to perform his individuality with brillo and panache, even as he argues that such individuality is necessarily a fiction?

Monday, September 12, 2011


Rights are mainly a matter of declarations. They are, in short, the product of a speech act. Undeclared rights are not rights at all. Hence the history of human rights is also a history of their repeated enunciation and articulation, from the Magna Carta on. But a declaration also implies an audience, and a process of interpretation. Hence, alongside this history of speech acts is a parallel (parasitical?) history of interpretation and commentary. Often the modus operandi of that commentary is the laborious process by which an event is reconstituted and reimagined: What exactly did the framers mean?

And if a declaration is an event, an irruption onto the scene of political discourse (dated: 1789, 1948...), then usually interpretation is the province of an institution (a Supreme Court or similar), whose judgments may or may not come to be seen as events and so new declarations, that have in turn to be interpreted in subsequent institutional deliberations. Such is the temporality of rights discourse: the violent irruption of the event is followed by the (quite literally) stately progress of deliberation and interpretation.

But some events are less eventful than others. The "Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms" is, frankly, a bit of a damp squib. It comes late to the scene of rights declarations (which were piling up thick and fast by the middle of the twentieth century). Belatedness is not itself a curse: the more recent a declaration, the more likely it is to declare a new right, and thus to up the ante of the game of eventful articulation. The Canadian Charter, however, manages to be both almost entirely derivative and singularly Canadian at the same time.

The derivativeness is in the first instance linguistic. And I don't merely mean the phrases (e.g. "the right not to be subjected to any cruel and unusual treatment or punishment") clearly lifted from other, similar documents. More to the point, and despite being described as a document that articulates the values around which the Canadian people can unify, the Charter's language is distinctly uninspiring.

It doesn't help that the document's very first clause is the famous "Limitations" clause that states that the rights that follow are "subject [. . .] to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society." This may seem like an eminently sensible and pragmatic reminder that rights are mutually limiting: the right to free speech, for instance, is limited by the right to non-discrimination; hence bans on hate speech. But it sure takes the wind out of the Charter's rhetorical sails.

Imagine the crowds that surged on Parliament Hill, urged on by the slogan "Fight for your Rights! Subject only to Such Reasonable Limits Prescribed by Law as Can Be Demonstrably Justified..." Actually, you can almost imagine an Ottawa crowd moved by such a slogan. Hence the distinctively Canadian tone of the Charter: so very sensible and self-limiting. Quite unlike the US Bill of Rights, for instance. And the Canadians not only begin with a "Limitations" clause; they also end with a "Notwithstanding" clause, which basically means that the Parliament or a provincial legislature can suspend almost any of the Charter's provisions for (a renewable) five years.

In short, if every rights regime comes into being and operates between the twin pressures and temporalities of an insurgent event on the one hand, and that event's institutional interpretation and assimilation on the other, it's very clear to which of the two Canada's Charter leans: it's a tool of state management much more than it is the result of popular struggle. Its time is not that of revolution (still, by contrast, hard-wired into the US Bill of Rights or the French Declaration of the Rights of the Citizen) but of pacification.

And so no wonder that Harry Arthurs and Brent Arnold can conclude that the Charter is essentially useless:
Progress towards the vision of Canada inscribed in the Charter has generally been modest, halting, non-existent, and, in some cases, negative. What we claim is that the Charter does not much matter in the precise sense that it has not – for whatever reason – significantly altered the reality of life in Canada.

[. . .]

Canada’s political culture today is less vibrant, less democratic, than it was a generation ago.

[. . .]

The plight of Aboriginal peoples has not been much ameliorated, if at all. The project of multiculturalism, which is mentioned but not given prominence in the Charter, has seemingly gone off the boil. Immigrants – despite new guarantees of their legal and equality rights – seem to be having a tougher time integrating into society and the economy. ("Does the Charter Matter?" [Review of Constitutional Studies 11.1 (2005)]: 38, 111-112)
And why exactly has it had so little impact, or has what impact it has had been mostly negative? Essentially because it substitutes fictive abstract equality for real material differences. This, after all, is the fundamental move of all rights discourse, from the founding conceit of moving from natural to civil rights. Again, as Arthurs and Arnold put it:
If one were to establish a gradient that descends from the most affluent to the least affluent members of society, one would find at each point on that gradient not only lower living standards, but lower levels of educational attainment, health, personal safety and security, civic participation, political influence, and respect from police and other state officials. Moreover, as one descended the gradient, one would almost certainly encounter members of Charter-protected groups in ever-increasing numbers. [. . .] The best prospects for greater progress towards the equality values of the Charter would therefore be to redistribute wealth.

[. . .]

Of course, the Charter was not designed to transform Canada’s political economy. On the contrary, when it was adopted, its architects took considerable care neither to protect property nor to redistribute wealth. (113-114)
But is this not what all rights declarations do? It's not merely that the Canadian Charter happens to be one of the least interesting and least effective instances of such rights discourse. It also demonstrates to us something shared by all such discourse. For it always ultimately is a matter of replacing popular struggle with bureaucratic institutions.

Sunday, September 11, 2011


Borges's first book was a collection of poems entitled Fervor de Buenos Aires, published in 1923.

One might expect the title to refer to the "fervor" or the hustle and bustle of a city undergoing rapid expansion in the early years of the twentieth century: thanks to mass immigration, Buenos Aires grew by 75% during this period (Beatriz Sarlo, Una modernidad periférica 18). But Borges's city is strangely subdued and depopulated. Practically every other poem has a reference to "shadow" ("the bank of shadow" [39], "fear of the shadows" [57]) or to "ash" ("a little ash and a little glory" [44], "between the ashes and the fatherland"), not to mention death (the poems "Remorse for Any Death" [53], "Inscription on Any Tomb" [55]), boredom (52), and solitude (67) and so on.

If this is the modern (or even the modernist) city, more than anything else it reminds one of French photographer Eugène Atget's famous portraits of deserted Parisian streetscapes. And if Borges is an urban flâneur, he is one who avoids the city-center streets, "unpleasant because of all the crowds and fuss." He prefers rather to wander the suburbs and indeed the very edge of the city, where the deserted lanes are "full of promise for the man on his own" (37).

And yet Borges has told us that where there is one there are always also at least two. "I am alone and I am with myself" as he puts it here (65). Or even many: his is a "solitude populated like a dream" (69). One is already quite enough of a crowd, because every "one" (or everyone) is divided, split, multiple.

And so it is too with Fervor de Buenos Aires. This is a book that is many, written by more than one. For though it was Borges's first book, he also continually returned to it: as Kate Jenckes observes, there are at least four versions of the text (from 1923, 1943, 1969, and 1974), all of which are significantly different and none of which can be regarded as fully definitive (Reading Borges After Benjamin 7 and 141n6). The one I am reading is from the Obras completas (though again there are many iterations of Borges's "Complete Works," none of which are complete; mine is from 1992). This comes with a prologue dated August 1969 in which Borges admits to having edited some of the poems but claims that he
felt that the boy who wrote the book in 1923 was already essentially--what does "essentially" mean?--the gentleman who now either resigns himself to what it says or corrects it. We are the same; we are both skeptical of failure and success, of literary movements and their dogmas; we are both devotees of Schopenhauer, Stevenson, and Whitman. As far as I am concerned, Fervor de Buenos Aires prefigures everything that I would do afterwards. (33)
It's worth mentioning, though, that in the original Spanish that final phrase ("todo lo que haría después") could just as easily be translated "everything that he would do afterwards." Borges and I (and he): which is which? Which wrote this book, and which wrote what came after?

Equally, if we come to this, Borges's first book, to understand the origins of his writing career, which version should we be reading? Is what I have read (and quoted), revised in 1969, really the "origin"? Even the order of the collection varies according to the date of publication. Beatriz Sarlo makes much of the fact that the first poem to appear is "La Recoleta," about the Buenos Aires cemetery of that name (Una modernidad periférica 18). But as Jenckes points out, in other editions (including the one I am reading) this is actually the second poem printed, not the first (140n3). Quite literally, the point of origin is murky and unstable. We are starting our reading of Borges here (if we ignore for the time being the fact that we already started), but we can't be entirely sure as to where this "here" is. As soon as we reach out to it, it divides and multiplies.

Should this slipperiness be cause for concern? Borges is in some ways essentially slippery. Note above, for instance, that at the very moment that he justifies his editorial interventions by claiming that he and his younger self are "essentially" the same, he also has to question what is meant by "essentially." He states and undercuts his case at one and the same time. For after all, was the boy ever even "essentially" the same as himself at the time: "I am alone and I am with myself" (65).

For Borges, the true mystery is not this endless division and uncertainty. Time passes, things change, moment to moment everything is up in the air; neither language nor reason can hold things still within their prisons of representation or categorization. I is always another. It could not be otherwise. No, the real surprise is that despite all this mutability and malleability, some things somehow do seem to remain the same. It may be mere illusion or habit (though what could be less illusory than habit?), but we do think--or better, as Borges puts it, feel--that we incarnate some kind of singularity that is more or less the same today as it was yesterday or as it was (in Borges's case) 46 years previously. Hence then the
wonder in the face of the miracle
that despite the infinite play of chance
that despite the fact that we are but
drops in Heraclitus's river,
something still endures within us:
unmoved. (50)
This surely is the Spinozan conatus to which "Borges and yo" already made reference: the striving to endure within what is otherwise endless flux, bubbling fervor.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011


What does it mean to "read Borges"? What are we even endeavoring to read?

"Borges" is a cipher: a proper name that stands in for a set of texts with which that name is associated. It's a figure or speech or language, a form of metonymy: part stands for whole. The author's name, printed on the front of each book, stands in for a series of texts from Fervor de Buenos Aires to Libro de arena. Perhaps we know that this proper name is at best a convenience: as Foucault would say, it's an "author function"; it's a fiction, or something that arises from fiction. It is "a projection, in more or less psychologizing terms, of the operations that we force texts to undergo, the connections that we make, the traits that we establish as pertinent, the continuities that we recognize or the exclusions that we practice" ("What is an Author?" 110). The author is, in short, the product of our reading; in reading Borges we also construct the fiction of Borges as author.

This process, by which we make the author's name stand in for the texts to which it is attached, is, however, a rather useful fiction, which forestalls cumbersome circumlocutions. The name simply helps us classify and identify this set of texts, and to differentiate them from others. Let's not ask too much of this operation, or hold it to impossible standards. We know that in any case each and every word we use is in some sense a cipher: an arbitrary sound or mark on a page that we customarily agree is associated with a particular concept. That association is undoubtedly tenuous, sustained more by tradition and habit than by logic. There's always something unstable or partial about any statement we try to make in any language. But for convenience's sake, and to save time, we say we "read Borges" rather than going into the specificities of our task at each and every mention. If we can never be fully exact, however precise we try to be, then let's simply accept some imprecision.

And yet the fact that we have chosen to read only texts that bear the name of Borges suggests rather more than a matter of mere convenience; it smacks of obsession. There is something obsessive and perhaps hallucinatory about trying to read Borges. We will inevitably imagine we glimpse traces of some other Borges that is not some mere textual effect: a Borges that is more than a proper name, a placeholder metonymically standing in for something else. The ritualized habit of saying "Borges" has its own effects. We will start to think we see a figure that is rather more substantial than a mere figure of speech.

As so often, Borges anticipates us. His short piece "Borges y yo" is about precisely the way in which a text--textuality--seems to connect a proper name with the traces of another ghostly (if allegedly more substantial) presence. Borges the public figure, the name, the signifier that enables literary categorization and literary classification, conjures up also this other figure who likewise likes "hourglasses, maps, eighteenth-century typography, the roots of words, the smell of coffee, and Stevenson's prose" (61; the translation I'm using is Norman Thomas di Giovanni's, found here). The two Borges overlap but never fully coincide. The one is unimaginable without the other. The schemes of the one justify the existence of the other: "I live, I let myself live, so that Borges can plot his literature, and that literature is my justification" (61; translation modified).

The twist of course lies at the end the tale: it is just when we think we might have arrived at the figure who lies behind the plot, the Borges that is more than mere proper name, that we discover what could well be merely another literary artifice. For if we assume that the "I" of "Borges and I" is the writer himself, the story's last line makes us think again: "Which of us is writing this page I don't know" (62). This forces us to re-read the story: so strong is our impulse to imagine authorial presence, we have no doubt neglected the possibility that the "I" of the story is the convention, the literary placeholder of convenience. Indeed, how could it be otherwise? Why would we have imagined that in this story--and this story alone--we should have direct access to some other Borges who lies behind that authorial function? Only because "Borges" directs us to think so, before then pulling the rug from under our feet. Yet it is equally likely (and perhaps more fully Borgesian) that the "Borges" on whom the "I" comments (and about whom he complains) is the writer himself. And why shouldn't the proper name try to rid himself (itself?) of the referent to which he or it is supposed to refer? The life of a signifier is "a running away, and I lose everything and everything is left to oblivion or to the other man" (62).

And in the end our job as readers, as readers of Borges, is to track down that literary artifice, rather than its presumed author. Not that we can easily tell the difference.

Thursday, September 01, 2011


A few more reviews of Posthegemony have now appeared. I will respond to some of the points they raise, but in the meantime, here are the responses the book has received to date: