Posthegemony, Deconstruction, Infrapolitics

Bram Acosta, Thresholds of Illiteracy

Over at the Infrapolitical Deconstruction Collective, an important project with which I have been (so far) rather peripherally involved, Alberto Moreiras comments on Bram Acosta’s Thresholds of Illiteracy. Specifically, he comments on that book’s introduction, which sets up a dichotomy between John Beverley’s Latin Americanism After 9/11 and my own Posthegemony. Acosta suggests that these two books “are already being used to establish the terms and grounds of cultural debate in Latin America for the next several years” (19). And yet it soon emerges that, in Acosta’s eyes, this would be a serious mistake. For despite their differences and even apparent disagreements, they are both, he argues, complicit in the same founding gestures. First, Beverley and I “identif[y] and conflat[e] deconstruction and subaltern studies” (20-21). Having done so, we then proceed on “the same disciplinary premise: the rejection or presumed exhaustion of deconstruction as a critical practice” (22). To which Moreiras adds that the two of us both “play to a choir of bedmates.” So there’s apparently quite a crowd under the sheets, and a noisy one too, illicitly consorting together.

Now, I’ve already written at some length about Beverley’s book, and don’t plan to do so again. Suffice it to say, however, that I would point to differences between his project and my own that Acosta doesn’t even mention, not least a very different approach to politics. As I put it, and against Beverley’s trenchant defense of Latin America’s so-called left turns, in my view “politics is about indeterminacy, possibility, and potential. It is about what is not written or predetermined. Politics is about strategy, surprise, critique, and a fundamental dissatisfaction with the present state of things.” It might also be worth saying that I make this point in the light of an affirmation of subalternity, which I define both here and in Posthegemony in terms of “the possibility of betrayal, even self-betrayal” (cf. Posthegemony 266). In my book, indeed, I concur with and quote Moreiras on precisely this point: in arguing that “the subaltern is beyond representation, an insurgent betrayal of constituted power” (Posthegemony 234), I cite his characterization of “subaltern negation” as posthegemonic in that it is a “refusal to submit to hegemonic interpellation, an exodus from hegemony” (Moreiras, The Exhaustion of Difference, 126). I’m not sure if this makes Alberto a bedmate or part of the choir, but it does complicate things a little. As, for that matter, does the fact that the “deconstruction” that Beverley rejects is firmly intended to include me and my work. Indeed, according to Beverley I am “a product of deconstruction”. Even, then, if we were both rejecting deconstruction, it’s fairly obvious that it’d be rather different things we’d be turning our backs on, rather different partners we’d be kicking out of the bed.

Yet for what it’s worth, I may reject many things, but not deconstruction. When Moreiras refers to the notion that “Beasley-Murray and Beverley may not be now quite where they were a few years ago,” he may be thinking of my more recent “Rogue’s Take” in which I declare, perhaps to Beverley’s delight, that “I am now and always have been a deconstructionist.” But the most cursory reading would evidence that in Posthegemony, too, it is simply not true that (as Acosta argues) “the source of the problem” is deconstruction (21). Else why would I have spent so much time arguing about hegemony theory and civil society? Moreover, it should be equally obvious that, far from a rejection of deconstruction, let alone subalternism, my claim and my aim–in which of course I may or may not be successful–is to build on some of their key insights. In fact, in the introduction to my book on which Acosta’s reading mostly relies, what I am trying to establish is rather a genealogy of the concept of “posthegemony” that is absolutely indebted to both of them, and to the work of Moreiras (and Gareth Williams) in particular. Of course, I do indeed state that I am “not content” with deconstruction, but one doesn’t write books out of a sense of contentment.

Frankly, however, none of this seems especially interesting to me. I like Acosta’s book, and I think it is important and significant–perhaps even vital–in a number of ways. I hope to give a fuller account of it here at some stage. But I don’t think that this initial framing of its argument is either helpful or illuminating. Indeed, it does the book a disservice. Setting up my book and Beverley’s as conjoined twins that have somehow both (as he says specifically of Posthegemony) “misse[d] the point” (22) is essentially a rhetorical gesture that seems to clear the field for his own intervention. But it’s an artificial and unnecessary settling of accounts that relies on what is ultimately the straw man that together our two books have truly “establish[ed] the terms and grounds of cultural debate in Latin America for the next several years” (19). I may perhaps in my wildest dreams wish that this were so, but I’m rather aware of the many other positions and approaches that this backhanded compliment willfully obscures… not least, after all, the work of people such as Moreiras or others whose take on deconstruction is (arguably) less “rogue” and more unambiguous. Significantly, Acosta’s book, having set up and demolished its straw man in its introduction, then proceeds on the whole to ignore both Beverley and my work in what follows, probably much to its own benefit. Our books end up no more than what Moreiras calls “specter[s authors] must fight in order to establish their own legitimacy.”

But the more interesting question, I think, is this one, which would encourage a less spectral and more productive discussion: not so much that of the relationships between posthegemony, illiteracy, and deconstruction, than that of their mutual (possible) contributions to the notion of infrapolitics. “Infrapolitics” is a term that neither Acosta nor I employ, but I would argue that Posthegemony is indeed fundamentally concerned with the concept. It is so in the sense that infrapolitics is a matter of the non-political without which the political itself would be unimaginable or impossible. This is something that has long been a constant in my own work: the curious could consult a very early essay on “Ethics as Post-Political Politics”; or you could take Gareth Williams’s I think fair capsule summary of Posthegemony as a “critical discussion of the relation between the concept of the multitude and the underpinnings of the political.” The specific question then of Acosta’s book would be to what extent “illiteracy” is also an attempt to think infrapolitics, and then what this would say about the relationship between (il)literacy and politics in Latin America and perhaps elsewhere. The broader question would concern the varieties of infrapolitics and the extent to which posthegemony can inform (as well as be informed by) our notion of the infrapolitical. Presumably infrapolitics is not solely the domain of deconstruction (or at least non-rogue deconstruction, if there is such a thing). What arrangement of beds or bedmates, choirs or singers, does infrapolitics then suggest or allow?

Hijo de hombre II

Augusto Roa Bastos, Hijo de hombre

The second half of Roa Bastos’s Hijo de hombre takes us to the War of the Chaco (1932-35), which Bolivia and Paraguay fought out in the inhospitable and almost uninhabited territory of the Gran Chaco. Ostensibly, this was a conflict over oil, which had been discovered in small quantities near the border. But in the war’s aftermath no significant reserves were found until in 2012 the Paraguayan government proudly announced the discovery of a huge oilfield, as belated consolation for the loss of 30,000 men some eighty years previously. At the time, however, the struggle was presented as a fight for national survival. The country had already been devastated by the War of the Triple Alliance (1864-70), in which the combined armies of Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil, plus starvation and disease, had inflicted extraordinary casualties (perhaps 60% of the entire population, and a particularly high percentage of adult males) and led to Paraguay losing almost half its territory. Given this precedent, the war with Bolivia was perceived as an existential threat rather than a simple squabble over remote border outposts and forts. Accordingly, the country scrambled into fullscale national mobilization and total war.

Hence Roa Bastos shows the disparate characters to whom we have been introduced in the novel’s first half as they are swept up by the war machine, whatever their previous histories and relations to the Paraguayan state. Rebels and renegades alike, plucked from prisons where necessary, are transported to the front line halfway between Asunción and the Bolivian border. Here they join the siege of Boquerón, trying to wrest back an isolated outpost from the opposing side. Conditions are terrible, and the Paraguayans end up struggling against the land and the environment as much as they also have to defend themselves from Bolivian attempts to break the siege. Miguel Vega, who lends this fragmented novel much of its meager sense of continuity, finds himself the head of a detachment of troops cut off from the rest of the Paraguayan forces in a dusty canyon. Above all, what they need is water. In a series of diary entries Vega tells the tale of devastation and increasing delirium as around him his men die of hunger and thirst. Everything becomes “unreal,” but nonetheless he continues to write: “I hold on for the end, clinging to this final glimmer of reason, this scrap of pencil. Every time it feels heavier, as if I were writing with the carbonized skeleton of a tree” (271). We are at the absolute limit of bodily endurance and graphic representation alike, as Vega wrestles with an implement that has become less a means of expression than the physical incarnation of blasted nature.

In parallel to Vega’s account, we are given the story of the small convoy that sets out to rescue him. Led by his former rebel comrade-in-arms, Cristóbal Jara, from the start we know that this is effectively a suicide mission. Here, there is little that is metaphorical about Jara’s absorption into the war machine: driving a water tanker, he is described as “form[ing] part of the truck, a living, feeling element that radiated force and will to the metallic tendons and nerves of the battered vehicle” (294). Later, he has one injured and gangrenous arm tied with wire to the steering wheel, the other to the gearstick. Throughout, half-man, half-machine, he embraces his fate as though it were freedom itself:

Now there was no other option than to go on, go on forever, go on at any cost. [. . .] What other destiny could a man like Cristóbal Jara have, other than to propel his obsession like a slave through a narrow trail in the forest or across the infinite plains, overflowing with the savage stench of liberty. To be opening the way through the savage thicket of the facts on the ground, shedding his flesh in them, but transforming them too with the aspect of that will whose power grew precisely the more he became one with them. (322)

This is an extraordinary passage: a paean to immanence, to freedom through what is apparently self-sacrifice, to the transfiguration of the real through absolute acceptance.

In his commentary on Roa Bastos’s novel, Horacio Legras notes that “War is the historical event par excellence” (Literature and Subjection 167). Which in many ways it no doubt it, not least in the case of Paraguay, a country whose history can be narrated precisely in terms of a catalogue of armed conflicts both external and internal. But in the account given by Hijo de hombre, war becomes more even than the scenario for existential survival or demise; it becomes an ontological test, an expression of constituent power and conatus in their most basic expressions. No wonder that after the conflict some veterans should seem lost without it: the final chapter gives us the story of Crisanto Villalba, whose lament is that “our war, which was so lovely, is at an end” (354). It’s hard to know how to take such investment in bloody conflict that otherwise seems so senseless and self-defeating, waged over a barren wasteland in the name of the Fatherland. There are surely echoes (or presentiments) of a quasi-fascist triumph of the will. But Roa Bastos himself seems to present this ontological struggle in more positive terms:

They feel alive in the facts. They feel united in the passion of an instant that projects them out of themselves, binding them to some cause whether it be true or false, but at least it’s something… There is no other life as far as they are concerned. [. . .] Even the sense of loss felt by Cristanto Villalba is an all-consuming passion like life. [. . .] Their God is the force of their indestructible brotherhood. They crush it, they break it, they tear it into pieces, but it is forever rebuilt from the fragments, each time more alive and more powerful. (362)

Ultimately Miguel Vega, who mostly and indeed perhaps entirely narrates the novel, and who surely stands in for Roa Bastos (however much he would rather see himself as the oral storyteller, Macario Francia), is uncertain whether to marvel at or be horrified by the brute force and stubborn perseverance–but equally stubborn self-immolation–of the Paraguayan “sons of men.” As he puts it at the end of his manuscript:

There has to be some way out from this monstrous paradox of man crucified by man. Because otherwise we’d be forced to think that the human race is forever cursed, that this is Hell itself and that we can hope for no salvation.

There has to be some way out, because otherwise… (369)

In that uncertain repetition and final ellipsis is all the ambivalence of this troubled and troubling text.

Hijo de hombre I

Augusto Roa Bastos, Hijo de hombre

Half-way through Augusto Roa Bastos’s first novel, Hijo de hombre (“Son of Man”), comes a point at which the narrator of this particular section, a military man who’s been sent to the Paraguayan provinces under a cloud, is confronted by a large group of would-be rebels. They ask him to join their rebellion, to guide them as they form an anti-government militia. The narrator asks for time to think, but reflects to himself that he “already knew right then that sooner or later I’d say yes. The cycle was starting again, and once more I was caught up in it.” He then asks himself: “Was it not possible, then, to stay on the margin?” (182). Writing from or about what would seem to be the periphery of the periphery–rural Paraguay in the first half of the twentieth century–Roa Bastos questions the very dichotomy between periphery and center. We are always in the thick of things, whether we like it or not.

Hijo de hombre also plays with circularity, in both theme and style. The narrative, for instance, is far from linear: it is repeatedly drawn to certain points of intensity, geographical and temporal, such as the Sapukai railway station and the huge blast that destroyed it during a previous insurrection. The railway itself is of course the model of a straight line, but its apparent advantages (speed, direction) are soon shown to be weaknesses when a train loaded with explosives is bearing down upon you. In the aftermath of the destruction, one of the train’s wagons, thrown many hundreds of yards from the site of the impact, becomes home to a family determined to take it quite literally off the rails. Slowly and surreptitiously, over a period of many years, they haul it deeper into the undergrowth. A small deviation from the line gradually expands. And it is here, by this ruin that testifies both to the indiscriminate violence of the state and to the tenacious persistence of the people, that the encounter between proto-guerrilla and treacherous guide takes place.

It may be, Roa Bastos appears to suggest, that the quickest and surest route is not the straightest but the most circuitous. The couple who end up in the railway wagon get there after a daring escape from indentured servitude. But it is only thanks to the fact that, on leaving the estate on which they had been sequestered, they first wandered around in circles, that they could make good their flight. Their overlapping, directionless tracks confuse the bloodhounds sent to hunt them down. And the novel’s own rather free-wheeling, roundabout, sometimes repetitive style also thereby perhaps takes us better into the heart of things. For each time we return to a place, a character, a moment in time, we may find we know it a little better. As we are always in the thick of things, we keep bumping up against what Roa Bastos is telling us are the central aspects of poor Paraguayans’ experience in the twentieth century: violence, repression, and fear, but also humour, ingenuity, and faith. There’s no straight line of redemption from slavery to freedom, no mechanistic dialectic of progress or liberation. But there are moments of freedom, small deviations to which we insistently return to enhance and expand.

Strong Constitutions: Cameron Responds

Strong Constitutions

I am grateful to Jon Beasley-Murray for his review of Strong Constitutions. The greater part of the review is a perceptive and accurate account of the central argument of the book. I also appreciate the objections Jon raises, which I think are important and deserve a response.

First, Jon argues that Strong Constitutions, despite its critical intent, ultimately falls within the mainstream of political science. Indeed it rests on a kind of scientific naturalism that is as bad as the pseudo-scientific rationalism it rejects. Second, Jon suggests the argument of Strong Constitutions is actually a rather conservative one. It confuses description with norms—what is, with what ought to be. Such a view limits rather than expands human freedom because, in the end, what ought to be is reduced to what is. Finally, Jon is skeptical of what he calls the “humane” tradition rooted in Aristotelian practical wisdom.

It would please me a great deal if Strong Constitutions were to be seen as part of mainstream political science. I have a strong commitment to social science. I do not, however, think the social sciences should seek to replicate the natural sciences. Strong Constitutions is written in support of an interpretive or human science that starts with the recognition of the centrality of agency and purposiveness, intentions and goals. I can’t agree with the claim that the vision of agency in this book is “as reductive” as rational actor theories. For me—like many social theorists, from Guillermo O’Donnell, to Amartya Sen, to Martha Nussbaum, to Ken Sharpe and Barry Schwartz—agency implies practical reason and moral judgment, which are missing in rational actor models. I assume agents can plan their lives and distinguish right from wrong, good from bad. A social science theory that does not incorporate that human capacity is not just limited—it becomes complicit with the unchecked instrumental rationality that undermines practices and institutions that are vital to self-government.

This brings me to the next point. Moral judgment, care and concern for others, and deliberation about both means and ends in aid of sociability, are human capabilities. They are by no means unique to humans (precursors of morality can be found among other mammals, birds, and, yes, even fish!), but they are massively reinforced by the use of language. The fact that we are speaking agents, among other things, contributes to our potential to be moral agents—that is, the ability to construct ought-based institutions. That is the sense in which Hume’s law (you cannot derive an ought from an is) is flawed. Morality is an emergent property of human sociability, a necessary feature of conscious social activity. Morals are social facts.

Morals as social facts are often embodied in institutions. I attribute recognition of this to Montesquieu, which is why he is a forerunner of sociology (Durkheim’s claim), and that is not at all a bad thing—my work also purports to be sociological. What makes institutions so interesting, in my view, and this is lost in a positivist perspective, is that in order to work they have to make normative claims that are always contestable. Merely reading the riot act is never enough—as we can see today in Ferguson. The factual power institutions generate is grounded in contestable claims that involve ought-statements. These are the moral resources institutions can mobilize, though they often fail to do so.

A critical insight of the book is that planning an action or activity before and judging the action after it has been executed are fundamentally different kinds of things. The first involves deliberation about the aims of an activity and how to achieve them. The second involves judgments about whether the aims were right and the means the best suited to achieve them. That these are not distinctions made in rational actor models is obvious, since such models focus on means-ends calculations exclusively. For that reason, such models cannot explain our deliberative institutions except in highly “reductive” ways. By contrast, the view that institutions are emergent properties of social action that in turn shape and give potential to agents implies reciprocal causality (where the causal arrow go both upward and downward between agents and institutions). I agree this can seem circular, but it is not an iron cage. On the contrary, recognizing this fact is essential to progressive social change.

There is, in the social sciences, too much faux realism masking complacency about the status quo. I am happy to be associated with a more “humane” tradition, though that is not a label I would have chosen. But I don’t see any basis linking Strong Constitutions to a kind of law-and-order ethic. It is, instead, written in support of the idea that human freedom is a collective goal, and to be truly free and flourishing we need to be participate in collective self-government. That is, at their best, what constitutions enable.

My thanks to Jon for his careful reading and probing analysis.

Strong Constitutions

Strong Constitutions

Max Cameron’s Strong Constitutions: Social-Cognitive Origins of the Separation of Powers is a very humane book. I don’t particularly intend that as a compliment, though I suspect it will be taken as one. In any case it’s not such a bad quality, not least in a book of political science. For Cameron’s aim is to avoid the dull, specialized, statistics-packed, acronym-heavy pseudo-objectivity that is all too typical of his discipline. Indeed, he has little time for the entire panoply of “twentieth-century efforts to make the study of politics a science in the model of the natural sciences” (199). He wants, instead, to return to a better and kinder time when politics could be conceived as a gentler, more virtuous and moral, activity than it has been envisaged under the terms of today’s Realpolitik and Polizeiwissenschaft. So, despite the overlaps with (among others) Jürgen Habermas’s theories of communicative rationality or Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson’s notions of “deliberative democracy,” Cameron suggests that something went wrong in political theory shortly after Montesquieu–or, oddly, just before the French and US Revolutions and so at the very dawn of the great age of constitution-writing. Indeed, the real hero of this book is Aristotle, and the Aristotelian conception of “practical wisdom.” The highest praise paid to Habermas, then, is that he “brings political theory back, full circle, to Aristotle” (157), while Montesquieu marks an end to things in so far as he was “the last great Aristotelian theorist” (92).

What results is a wide-ranging, ambitious, and often highly readable treatise on the function of the “separation of powers” within constitutional systems and constitutional thought from the Ancients to the present. Cameron makes two key points: First, that separating powers is not the same as limiting them. In other words, and against the common conception of “checks and balances”–the notion that the various parts of government need to be set against each other in order to ensure that none dominates the others–Cameron argues that it is only by keeping diverse forms of power distinct that we can have “strong constitutions,” that is, states and social orders empowered to organize and coordinate collective action. Rather than imposing limits, then, separation is best understood as a device to enhance each modality of governmental power and to ensure that together they are more than the sum of their parts.

Cameron’s second point is that the three modalities of power embodied in the legislature, executive, and judiciary are fundamentally all determined by their relation to written texts: writing, reading, and reflection. They are each, in other words, different aspects of the interpretative process in a system that is shaped by and dependent upon the written word. Constitutions are ultimately “texts that prescribe speech acts that are performed repeatedly according to a set of conventions and understandings” and thus give rise to “linguistically constructed worlds of shared meaning” (200). Hence, “reading” is far from a passive activity: when Cameron calls it a “speech act,” it is so in the sense that “reading the Riot Act” is a performative utterance with concrete effects on a given collection of human bodies. But such utterances are only effective if they are ascribed the requisite authority and legitimacy, and this (Cameron argues) is what the separation of powers ensures. If the Riot Act is read and the people do not disperse, then whatever the limited success of sending in the police with their batons and shields, something is wrong with the constitutional order.

So this is in many ways a very traditional book, almost refreshingly old-fashioned in its historical sweep and its attempt to rise above any geographical or cultural particularity as much as in its recourse to an old and somewhat out-of-favour theoretical tradition. Yet by putting language so firmly at the centre of its analysis, it also gestures to the so-called “linguistic turn” that has been so influential in twentieth-century social theory, even as mainstream political science turned its back on such theory in the name of rationalism and scientificity. Yet sadly, Strong Constitutions remains a work of the mainstream in so far as it, too, passes up on the chance for fruitful encounter with theorists of language, narrative, and political representation from Austin to Derrida, Althusser, Lyotard, Foucault, Laclau, Butler, or Agamben; some of their work is briefly cited, and there is a short if rather unsatisfactory discussion of Agamben in particular, but ultimately this is an opportunity lost. Here, I think, is where Cameron’s investment in the humane tradition does what is otherwise a fascinating and important book a signal disservice.

For ultimately, Strong Constitutions falls back on a scientific naturalism that is no less debilitating than the one that it (rightly) rejects in contemporary Political Science. We see this in the strange and wholly unexamined assumption that the separation of powers somehow replicates fundamental structures of human cognition: it “organiz[es] the state so that it has the same collective capacity for agency as the human mind: deliberation, followed by execution, and judgment of consequences” (166). This is surely as reductive a vision of agency as that of more conventional rational actor theory. Moreover, the invocation of “cognition” gives it a similarly spurious sense of scientific foundation–however much the first part of Cameron’s book suggests that ways of thinking are historically conditioned by communication technologies. Yet this assumption, that states act and think like people, and that people act and think according to these three particular categories, is central to what Cameron calls his “social-cognitive” approach, which is based on the notion that the separation of powers is “an organizational consequence of human cognition” (14).

Constitutions emerge then as less the product of human minds (as Cameron is otherwise keen to emphasize) than the quasi-natural attempt to mimic their thought processes. Not only does this lead to the very conservative confusion of description with norm: what (putatively) is becomes the model of the way things ought to be. Additionally, and despite his arguments against social contract theory, Cameron comes to remind us of Thomas Hobbes, who saw, as Sheldon Wolin is quoted as saying, “a potential congruence between the phenomenon of politics and the concepts of the human mind, provided that these concepts were founded on the right method” (qtd. 88). A new Leviathan emerges! So long, that is, as people do indeed think the ways in which they “ought” to think.

Where constitutionalism apparently doesn’t work out–as in the case of much of Latin America, we’re told–this is because of “entrenched patterns of social communication” that don’t fit the ideal model (178). Here, constitutions can’t very well do the job of bringing us to order, that is, of “bring[ing] speech and action into line with texts” (202). But then we are locked into a circular problem: if a constitution merely reflects (a given state of) human mind, mirroring its organizational features, then it can’t be expected to flourish in such barren social-cognitive ground. As Bertolt Brecht famously put it, “Would it not be easier / In that case for the government / To dissolve the people / And elect another?” Which, upon reflection, doesn’t seem such a humane option after all. And this is one of the cruel ironies of the humane tradition: that it has so often been so very inhumane in practice.

[Update: Cameron Responds.]

Posthegemony in Peru

I was fortunate a few weeks ago to be able to present my book at a “Mesa Verde” at the Instituto de Estudios Peruanos in Lima.  Guillermo Rochabrún and Juan Carlos Ubilluz provided stimulating comments, and there was a spirited discussion session at the end.  Herewith, the video of the event.  Many thanks to Patricia Ames for moderating and making it possible.