In an epoch of postmodern, neoliberal “dedifferentiation,” in which the distinctions between the once-separate spheres of politics, economics, and culture have been steadily erased, what are the possibilities of “making a difference” through writing, film, or art? This is the question that Alessandro Fornazzari’s Speculative Fictions sets out to answer, with a focus on the Chilean transition from Pinochet’s dictatorship to the revived party system of the past couple of decades.
But looking merely at the political transition, Fornazzari suggests (in the steps of Willy Thayer, among others) would be misleading. For the shift from state violence to today’s liberal democracy conceals other continuities, and perhaps other, more significant changes that have taken place on a different timescale. Indeed, the book outlines three “different transitional forms: the economic (the neoliberal transition from the state to the market), the political (the transition from dictatorship to democracy), and the aesthetic” (115). And it is ultimately the relation between the economic and the aesthetic that is of most interest here.
Latin American fiction has often been read in terms of “national allegory” (in Fredric Jameson’s famous phrase). So, for instance, when the “foundational fictions” of the nineteenth century charted (say) a love affair between creole boy and indigenous girl, something was being said about the racial politics of the nascent nation state. Or Gabriel García Márquez’s Macondo was not simply a small town somewhere on the Colombian litoral: it was Colombia as a whole, in microcosm, and in reading its story we also learned something about broader issues of (under)development and (post)colonialism. Or to take the example that Fornazzari studies at some length, the Chilean novelist José Donoso could publish an oblique yet unmistakeable critique of the Pinochet coup in part by dressing it up as a tale of a house in the country taken over by its servants. But what happens to allegory–and so to an entire mode of cultural representation–now that “the commodity exceeds and surpasses it” (35)?
I’m not sure I entirely buy this argument. The claim for an equivalence between literature and the commodity form is too quick and, well, too abstract. And after all, it is by means of an allegorical reading that Fornazzari can declare allegory’s contemporary exhaustion; so it still in fact has its uses. But this is not to say that we can’t contemplate other modes of aesthetic and/or political engagement; Jameson’s reduction of all “third-world fiction” to national allegory was limiting in any event. And as Fornazzari points out, reading only in such terms is impoverishing: once the appropriate key is found (Macondo = Colombia; the country house = Chile), then it’s as though “all hermeneutical work can be considered over and done” (33). But the correspondences are always inexact, there is always too much or too little in the literary text to map out a one-to-one series of equivalences. Hence this book is dedicated to exploring the (allegedly) new “speculative cultural forms” that Fornazzari categorizes in terms of “antiallegorical strategies, second-order forms of abstraction, the dissemination of a stock-market model of value, and avant-garde models of political economy” (116).
Some of these cultural forms are, frankly, more interesting than others. In some cases they are little more than symptoms of transformations located elsewhere, and at times Fornazzari struggles to differentiate his analysis from a rather crude economic determinism: new models of labor or subjectivity emerge and are duly registered or reflected in a book such as Arturo Fontaine’s Oír su voz. Fornazzari claims that in this paean to finance capitalism, “the realist storyteller ultimately eludes the neoliberal ideologue” (47), but he doesn’t sound too convincing or even too convinced of this himself when he concludes that the book can be read as “a literary treatise on the concept of human capital” (51). A lot’s riding here on the adjective “literary,” which is rather undermined by the account of the “saturation of the novel with the discourse of political economics” (45). How different is it really from the text that Fornazzari immediately goes on to consider, El ladrillo: Bases de la política económica del Gobierno Militar Chileno, characterized here as “in an of itself, an unremarkable economic text” (52).
Or is the point that, in an age in which the line between economics and culture is blurred, the economic text takes on something of the literary? If so, it’s not particularly shown for El ladrillo. Elsewhere in fact it’s suggested that neoliberalism ushers in “a brutally realist order of things” that has no time for “literary rhetoric” (32)–as though realism itself were not simply another rhetorical mode. I wonder, too, how this argument meshes with that of Erika Beckman, whose recent Capital Fictions demonstrates the complicity of literature and mercantile economics in the early part of the twentieth century. Indeed, the further one progresses with Speculative Fictions, the more dubious its central premise becomes, that (now, for the first time) “everything including commodity production has become cultural, and culture has become profoundly economic” (7). If anything it’s a testament to the rather more complex and detailed cultural readings that Fornazzari provides–of the novelist Diamela Eltit and, perhaps especially, the work of visual artist Catalina Parra–that we soon become dissatisfied with such sweeping generalizations.
For in the end, though there have no doubt been profound changes in Chile (and elsewhere) in economics, politics, and culture, and their mutual relations, these developments have taken place on different timescales and in line with each domain’s own (never fully autonomous but never fully dependent) logics and rhythms. So, for instance, this book also shows that the ground for Pinochet and the Chicago Boys’ transformation of the country’s economy was already laid by the Christian Democratic government of Eduardo Frei in the 1960s. The political regime, by contrast, was repeatedly upended in a much swifter (and traumatically abrupt) series of ruptures and upheavals. And in cultural production we see plenty of residual elements as well as (what Fornazzari suggests may be) emergent forms that point beyond our contemporary condition.
So the three spheres are not (yet) fully aligned, and each has its own history and its own trajectory. It’s perhaps this feature of what we could (however old-fashioned it sounds) call “combined and uneven development” that ensures that there is some space still for critique and contestation. The immense virtue of Fornazzari’s book is that it quickly points us away from its somewhat simplistic premises and towards the far more interesting task of exploring the real complexity, the paradoxes and ironies as well as the continuing cruelties, of a society that is in no way as dedifferentiated as its right-wing boosters (and many of its left-wing critics) would like to think.