Saturday, January 17, 2009


It's exciting to see books published by old friends and classmates. A whole number have just come out or will appear in the next few months: Horacio Legras's Literature and Subjection or Freya Schiwy's Indianizing Film, for instance. It feels as though the field of Latin American cultural and literary studies has been in the doldrums for, what, perhaps a decade or more?

At the last LASA Congress, in Montreal, it felt as though the theme was generational: a changing of the guard. John Beverley was offering himself up as now no longer critic but subject of testimonio (we who have seen so much...). Alberto Moreiras had moved increasingly outside US Latin Americanism (to Aberdeen's Centre for Modern Thought). Bruno Bosteels was playing a complicated game of self-positioning (beware the old masters...). And the rest of us were feeling just that little bit older.

The hope, then, might be that among these new publications are some indications of new paradigms or common projects. Or perhaps, for better or worse, we've moved beyond such things; perhaps 2001 really was the end of alliances (see Trigo, "The 1990s," 367).

Fictions of Totality coverThe latest book to arrive in the mail is my old friend Ryan Long's Fictions of Totality: The Mexican Novel, 1968, and the National-Popular State.

There's no doubt that Fictions of Totality is a landmark in the study of the twentieth-century Mexican novel. Long offers close readings of a series of important texts from Carlos Fuentes's La región más transparente (1958) to Héctor Aguilar Camín's Morir en el golfo (1986), tracing their relation with the concurrent gradual political transition from the national-popular state to neoliberalism. In each case, Long argues that the novels he analyzes are total novels--or, rather, totalizing novels--that both claim to represent the social and at the same time expose, wittingly or unwittingly, the necessary limits to such a totalizing project.

This same story has, of course, been told purely within literary history: in terms of the transition from modernism to postmodernism, grand narratives to skepticism, (say) Ulysses to Finnegan's Wake. Long's innovation is to map this postmodernization (delayed, in Mexico's case; for which see Gerry Martin's Journeys Through the Labyrinth) to an account of what he terms "the gradual decline of the national-popular state's hegemony" (47). He recontextualizes (and seeks to explain) literary history in terms of its posthegemonic determinants.

Now, in the spirit of kick-starting some kind of discussion, for a couple of quick questions.

The first is obvious, but none the less pressing: what precisely is the relationship posited here between novel and state? At times, Long suggests that novels reflect upon and even expose the state in so far as they "respond to their historical context" (9). At other times, the sense seems to be that novel and state share a parallel trajectory, each mirroring the other as they share "common ground" in that "exclusivity is at the same time foundation and limit of their privileged positions" (5). At still other times, presumably the novel is part of the putative hegemony of the national-popular state, one of the mechanisms that help to produce the state as, Long claims, "in large part, an ideological construct" (8).

Second, it should be no surprise that I think that Long could push the posthegemonic aspect of his narrative further. There are many indications that the notion of a fall from hegemonic grace is ultimately unconvincing. For instance, there's a problem of periodization: Long tells us that 1968 and the massacre at Tlatelolco were the crux in that "the traumatic events of 1968 were [. . .] the source of an ideological crisis" (120) revealing the violence that ultimately anchored claims to hegemony. Yet this crisis comes to seem more a prolonged and unremitting agony than the response to a punctual event. For Long also shows that Tlatelolco was simply one more of the many episodes of violent repression that punctuated the PRI's long regime, from the Cristero war of the 1920s and early 1930s to the counter-insurgency campaigns of the 1970s and on (we might add) to the repression of the Zapatistas in the 1990s (6). And equally, even at the end of the period that Long surveys, i.e. by the 1980s and a new set of (primarily economic) crises, the totalizing narrative continues, albeit as parody. After all, it was not until 2000 that the PRI finally gave up power, some thirty years after Tlatelolco.

In other words, it's not clear that the PRI's regime was ever, in any meaningful sense of the term, hegemonic. Long claims that 1958 marked "the height of the national-popular state" (9). But he also shows that Fuentes's La región más transparente, published that same year, both exposes the limits of the state's hegemonic project and, precisely for this reason, attempts to construct a "compensatory totality" (41) to make up for that political failure. Moreover, even when he describes the PRI's presumed pre-1960s hegemony, it is in terms of its "aspirations" or its "promise" (8).

Long shows not so much the decline of national-popular hegemony, as the disappearance of any promise to achieve hegemony. It is not hegemony that fades (for there is no hegemony and never has been), but the hegemony of hegemony that comes to an end: the project to build a future hegemony is abandoned, as everyone comes to recognize that it would be both impossible and ineffective. Moreover, this second-order hegemony can come into crisis in 1968, and yet everything carries on much the same. Almost fully half of the PRI's regime is still to come. 1968 marks the death of the national-popular state only in the sense that he not busy being born is busy dying. It was always in its death throes.

Read in terms of the decline not of hegemony but of its promise, Fictions of Totality becomes fully posthegemonic. And maybe then we might be able to rethink the problematic of the novel, no longer in terms of its relation to the state as such, but rather in terms of its relation to constituent power. In other words, not so much as a vehicle for representation, but as a (perhaps rather less totalizing) project to mould affect and habit.

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