Ifigenia III

Teresa de la Parra, Ifigenia

And so Teresa de la Parra’s novel ends as the title always indicated that it would: with a sacrifice, and a willing one at that. María Eugenia has at least two opportunities to avoid her fate of an unhappy marriage with César Leal, which she variously describes as a “death sentence” and “hidden slavery” (336). She could take the risky route of eloping with her former suitor Gabriel Olmedo, whose impassioned letter urges her towards an early-morning street-corner assignation, from which he would whisk her to the port and a steamship and on to a voyage of discovery through Europe. She seems about to take up this option, but hesitates as she runs into Aunt Clara while seeking out a suitcase in the darkened house. Then her second chance to escape her fearful destiny comes when, shortly afterwards, she summons Leal to see her, determined to break off the engagement. She has her speech ready: “In the past few days while you have not been here, I have confirmed that I do not love you enough to marry you [. . .]” (331). When the time comes, however, she cannot bring herself to say these words. And again, Aunt Clara has something to do with her unwillingness to follow through: she imagines herself like her, an “old maid,” her beauty long gone and dependent on Uncle Eduardo. At least with Leal she would have a house of her own, a place of asylum.

In any case, the truth is that her fiancé barely lets her get a word in edgewise: his voice is “full of energy and absolutely clear, always knowing what he wants and always saying exactly what he has to” (332). By contrast, María Eugenia ends up without a voice at all: ”he didn’t let me speak, and as he carried on explaining things to me so loquaciously, I didn’t say another syllable, but set to watching him as I sat mute, perplexed, and absent” (333). Far from being the protagonist of the novel of her own life (as she had, at the outset, excitedly exclaimed to her friend Cristina), she is now at best a bystander, at worst a victim of decisions made by others. She has been an object for some time: a commodity for sale. Now, however, she faces the horror of being an object aware of her objectification and the treatment she is undergoing, but without the chance of calling out or doing anything about it. Like the nightmare of the patient on the operating table whose anaesthetic has failed but who cannot move a muscle, any self-awareness she has won only makes everything worse.

Of course, in theory María Eugenia’s options remain open as the book comes to a close: the wedding with Leal is still a week away, and Olmedo, rejecting her negative response to his suggestion as a sham, seems to be offering her one more chance. But one can hardly imagine her making such choices. Indeed, one can hardly imagine her making any choices of any significance at all. To put this another way: if the traditional Bildungsroman is a narrative detailing the birth of the adult subject, through trial and error, experience and gradual self-knowledge, Ifigenia is better described as an inversion of the genre. Here we have a subjectivity that is almost comprehensively dismantled, that enters into utter crisis; and the only knowledge that María Eugenia seems to have gained about herself is the fact of her own unknowability, the otherness that haunts her and that, at the crucial moment, “spoke through my own mouth, took my destiny in its claws, [and] cruelly destroyed it” (328). More broadly, this is a tale of psychic disintegration; as such, it perhaps has more in common with ”The Yellow Wallpaper” than would first appear to be the case. In other words, the essence of María Eugenia’s tragedy has little to do with the fact that she does not (cannot) elope with Gabriel: his paean to natural rights and Romantic freedom hardly disguises the fact that the choice he’s offering her is merely between two forms of patriarchal subjugation.

Our would-be heroine’s tragedy, rather, concerns the nearly catatonic state, dominated by fear and anxiety, to which she succumbs by the end. She is unable to achieve liberal subjectivity and personhood, and at the same time has failed to establish any alternative path. She has failed, for instance, to write her way out of her predicament: the literary project that at first seemed to offer some kind of liberation finally loses its way. María Eugenia tells us that this novel’s final chapter is also her adieu to writing: it’s the “final page of [her] spiritual life” (315). What had begun as gossipy and jocular confidences to a far-flung friend has by the end taken on the tone of a suicide note: when she drops the suitcase, signifying that eloping is no longer an option, she describes herself as “forsaken and suicidal” (329); later she says she is “pale, lifeless, hollow-eyed, almost ugly” (331; of course, that “almost” indicates the hook with which her anxiety has snared her). This novel that is obsessed with the idea of “life” in all its various connotations (a span of time as well as a form of intensity) ends up being the tale of a woman consigned to what Giorgio Agamben calls “bare life.” This is the sacrificial logic of the modern-day Iphigenia, who chooses oblivion only because all other choices are impossible or unimaginable, and what remains is mere habit.

Ifigenia II

Teresa de la Parra, Ifigenia

It turns out that writing can be addictive. Teresa de la Parra’s heroine, María Eugenia, finishes off her long letter to her friend Cristina de Iturbide, only immediately to then embark on a diary however much she thinks (as she tells us) that this is “a great foolishness, [. . .] a kitsch Romanticism, out of date and very much out of fashion” (83). For someone who values fashion and being fashionable as much as María Eugenia does, it’s quite something that she should take up a practice that’s so clearly unfashionable. She can barely even give a name to what she’s doing: “it will be like what in novels they call a ‘diary’” (83). But the urge to write is stronger than the desire to keep up with the latest trends. It’s as though she can’t help herself: once she’s taken up the pen, she can’t put it down. It’s not fully in her control.

What follows, and what therefore opens the diary, is a reflection on how what we think (our convictions) and what we do (our conduct) can get out of synch. You would have thought that conviction and conduct should go hand in hand: we think something, and then we act on our thoughts. But far from it. María Eugenia thinks to write a diary is kitsch and passé, but she does it anyway: writing has become a custom or “habit” (84), and habits are hard to kick. But there are other ways and other reasons for there to be a slippage between belief and behavior: our actions may be only “acting,” for instance; a performance that doesn’t necessarily reveal our true natures. We act otherwise than we feel for motives both good and bad, and at times it can be hard to tell the difference: we might be trying to deceive or merely trying to fit in; we may be being underhand, or simply polite. Or we may feel ashamed about some secret that we feel the need to hide, so as not to expose ourselves to ridicule or humiliation.

All these situations, and more, are explored in Ifigenia. For instance, María Eugenia confesses (if only to herself, in her diary) that lying has also become a habit, which has taken root in her with surprising “speed and reach” (97). Hence she has few qualms about telling her grandmother that she and her new friend, Mercedes Galindo, will be dining alone when in fact the whole purpose of the dinner is to meet the long-awaited Gabriel Olmedo, who has been set up as a potential suitor. One might ask, moreover, of the habit of dissimulating and the habit of writing are not connected in some way: however much María Eugenia began her letter to Cristina with the assertion that she couldn’t lie when she wrote (3), it has become clear that there’s nothing straightforward about putting something down on paper, not least when almost all the terms and feelings are somehow themselves borrowed from literary sources.

Take for instance the love letter that is embedded within María Eugenia’s diary. This is a missive that she spontaneously decides to compose, while out and about with her young cousin Pedro José (Perucho). She addresses it to Olmedo, whom she has now met and with whom she has, so she believes, almost instantly fallen in love. And she writes it (much to her grandmother and aunt’s later distress) en plein air, with her knees for a desk, and “feverishly [. . . with] the mad sincerity of all those ardent and silent love letters that are never sent” (164). In theory, this should be the most honest of missives, written in the heat of the moment and without regard for audience or schoolroom niceties. But it turns out to be extraordinarily stylized and affected, with extended metaphors that compare her putative beloved alternatively to Jesus (“You are the sweet Messiah of my soul” [165]) and Solomon of the Song of Songs. Or put this another way: if María Eugenia were trying to avoid kitsch Romanticism, here she spectacularly fails. This most sincere and honest of letters is in fact the creation of supremely literary habits of reading. What’s more, it’s clearly also the product of a rather hyper-active imagination and fantasy of what it must be like to fall in love. When it turns out that Gabriel has gone off and gotten engaged to someone else, we can’t but think that (for now, at least) María Eugenia has dodged a bullet.

So we have more than a mere slippage between thought and deed, emotion and expression, and more broadly essence and appearance. We have a thorough upending of all these overlapping distinctions. Performance and fidelity, fakery and authenticity, representation and the real, are all increasingly hard to tell apart, or rather increasingly seem to change places. Mercedes’s boudoir, to take another example, is both an intimate site for the exchange of confidences between women (such as Mercedes’s confession about her unhappy marriage) and also a cushion-filled imitation–or, better, fantasy–of some kind of Oriental antechamber. It’s a place where femininity is sacrosanct, but also where Mercedes and María Eugenia can try out otherwise “masculine” practices such as smoking a cigarette; it’s moreover a transitional space where femininity (and modernity) is itself constructed, through make-up and clothing and the like. In short, Teresa de la Parra is interested both in the psychic spatiality of transnational gender relations, trading off Paris with Caracas, writing and speech, public and private, ornament and utility, and so on, all around the basic division of inside and outside, essence and appearance. But she is equally concerned with the tipping points at which inside becomes outside, essence becomes appearance: the strategic moments when everything, however briefly, is turned inside-out, upside-down.

Radical Democracy and Collective Movements Today

Radical Democracy and Collective Movements Today

Radical Democracy and Collective Movements Today: The Biopolitics of the Multitude versus the Hegemony of the People
Edited By Alexandros Kioupkiolis and Giorgos Katsambekis
Ashgate, Farnham, 2014, x+247 pp., ISBN: 978-1-4094-7052-6

“Back in 2011,” the editors of this collection of essays tell us, “it came to the notice of various observers that the worldwide civil insurgencies that kicked off in Tunisia shared a set of singular features. The ‘Arab Spring,’ the Spanish indignados, the Greek aganaktismenoi and the Occupy World Street movement appeared to be leaderless and self-organized insurgencies of common citizens” (2). But the way this formulation suggests that 2011 is already half a lifetime away indicates that these “various observers” have a journalist’s rather than a historian’s sense of timing and context. Indeed, the use of the casual phrase “kicked off” to describe the outbreak of the Arab Spring–as though it were a football match or a playground fight–shows the influence of Paul Mason, formerly Business Editor for the BBC’s Current Affairs show Newsnight (now Economics Editor at Channel Four News). Mason’s 2012 book Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere, updated a year later as Why It’s Still Kicking Off Everywhere, breathlessly compiles a series of dispatches from the frontlines of what he calls the “new global revolutions.” Mason is well-informed and smart, but it is not evident why his perspective should be setting the agenda for a volume of essays on political theory. It may be because he puts the Greek and Spanish protests front and centre: Kioupkiolis and Katasambekis are both based in Greece, and their contributors such as Marina Prentoulis and Lasse Thomassen also want to tell us about Spain and, to a much lesser extent, Occupy Wall Street. But hardly any of these writers address the Arab Spring, let alone the precursors to what happened way “back in 2011.” It is therefore hard not to feel that this is, from the outset, a shallow book, too attached to its place and its moment, too much a creature of its immediate environment.

The collection treats theoretical differences in similar fashion, as a kind of spectator sport: its subtitle pits Biopolitics against Hegemony, Multitude “versus” People. In the essays themselves, this split tends to play out as a head-to-head between Italian theorist Antonio Negri and the late Ernesto Laclau. Too often, however, these antagonisms come off as rather artificial–it is worth noting, for instance, that Negri and Laclau hardly engaged with each other’s work–and they generate more heat than light as it is seldom clear what, if anything, is at stake in the contest. In fact, the essays by the collection’s editors, Kioupkiolis and Katsambekis, are among the better contributions precisely because they refuse to be seduced by the very false dichotomies that their book otherwise promotes. So Kioupkiolis prefers to “muddle the lines” by arguing that “hegemony” can and should “be radically recast beyond recognition, assuming a multitudinous form” (150); equally, then, the multitude would have to “come to grips with residues of hegemonic politics in its midst” (166). Likewise, Katsambekis suggests “that the very opposition between ‘multitude’ and ‘the people’ should be challenged,” proposing instead that we think in terms of a “multitudinous people” (172), or rather of “the inescapable slippage between multitude and people” (187). In short, instead of pitting these concepts against each other it would be better to consider the biopolitics of hegemony, and the ways in which the multitude is repeatedly converted into people even as the people continuously threaten to become multitude. Seeing them as dichotomies is unhelpful, not least because it obscures the fact that what is at stake is less some fixed opposition between different conceptions of politics, but the points of transition or transmutation between them. The key to populism, for instance, is the way in which it constructs a people and has then forever to fend off the multitude. If we simply replicate this hostility (multitude “versus” people) in our own work, all we achieve is a translation of the logic of populism to the theoretical domain. This was precisely Laclau’s failing: an inability to see beyond populism, and so to understand either what passes for hegemony or its alternatives. Fortunately, this book shows that post-Laclauian theorists have moved on from such a dogmatically reductive vision of the political.

Take for instance Yannis Stavrakakis’s article on “Hegemony or Post-hegemony?” At first sight, and starting with its title (another “either/or”), this is a trenchant defense of Laclau’s legacy that takes aim at my own book, Posthegemony, as well as the work of Scott Lash and Richard Day. I will not engage in detail with his criticisms, except to note that it is odd that Stavrakakis should read my repeated and quite explicit rejections of binarism as, instead, inadvertent contradictions of some other position that I have in fact never taken. But the point is this: that precisely in establishing, however fitfully, binarism as the theoretical enemy (and here the fact that this enmity is projected onto my own work, among others, is by the by), Stavrakakis starts to open up Laclau’s legacy in interesting and productive ways. Admitting, then, that “not all [. . .] struggles are bound, sooner or later, to acquire a hegemonic form” directs our attention to the preconditions for so-called hegemonic projects and the factors that lead to “the gradual sublimation of the emerging multitude into ‘a people’” (121), all of which is what provokes a shift from hegemony to posthegemony in the first place. In this light, Stavrakakis’s only real mistake is to invoke the dialectic (“a historical dialectics of mutual engagement and co-constitution” [122]), as though the relationship between multitude and people, potentia and potestas, and so on, were a matter of negation (and negation of the negation) or, worse still, subject to some kind of historical or political teleology, with hegemony always destined to emerge from posthegemony. Laclau himself, with his insistence on contingency, would have been the first to reject this recuperation of Hegelianism to manage hegemony’s limitations. But otherwise I can only agree with Stavrakakis’s point that “the issue is not to radically isolate the eras of hegemony and post-hegemony” (123); this after all is the import of my own declaration, contra Lash and others, that “there is no hegemony and never has been” (Posthegemony ix). And I agree even more whole-heartedly with the argument that “discourse and affect, symbolic and real” are far from being “mutually exclusive dimensions,” and that it is therefore our task “to explore, in every historical conjuncture, the different and multiple ways in which these interact to co-constitute subjects, objects and socio-political orders” (123). It is just a pity that this book features so little of such explorations.

I sympathize with the Greek anarchists to whom Richard Day and Nick Montgomery’s article is notionally addressed: they complain that Day’s book, Gramsci is Dead, is practically unintelligible. When Day replies that he was “in fact trying to write in a way that would make sense to people like them,” one of them responds: “Well, my friend, you kind of fucked up on that, didn’t you?” (45). Yet the shame is that Day and Montgomery then proceed to contribute an argument that is, of all things, meta-meta-theoretical (i.e. about meta-theory) and that has little to say about Greece or, to be honest, anywhere else. Its much-vaunted intelligibility comes down to some populist gestures, a celebration of North American indigeneity, plus a demotic defence of undecidability: “everyone is right that everyone is wrong” (67). Which can hardly help Day’s anarchist friends very much. Perhaps the best essay in this collection is Benjamin Arditi’s article on posthegemony as “Politics outside the usual post-Marxist paradigm,” which stands out not merely for the clarity of its exposition but also for its range of reference and engagement with multiple examples of social movements, from protests against Pinochet or South African apartheid to the Mexican Zapatistas or the Argentine piqueteros. The point is that, though the indignados and the aganaktismenoi may have been particularly enthusiastic in their search for political vocabularies that go beyond the platitudes of populism or the shibboleths of hegemony, they were far from the first. And the fact that (as other essays in this collection delight in reminding us) they may not have entirely succeeded in throwing off the discursive tics of more conventional politics is neither surprising nor damning. What is interesting is the ways in which these movements build on and learn from each other, as well as from what Arditi describes as a whole “range of formats of collective action that were either ignored or dismissed by the advocates of the theory of hegemony” (41). Not all of these have turned out well, not by a long shot: whether in Egypt or Argentina, Spain or the United States, the extraordinary multiplication of political experiments since the end of the Cold War (or since, say, Venezuela’s Caracazo of February, 1989) has had as many dead ends as live wires, as many disappointments and setbacks as promising advances. Still, something always escapes. There is no teleology or predetermination here: neither Negri’s eschatology of the multitude nor Laclau and Mouffe’s infinite expansion of radical democracy. But there is plenty to remind us that politics (and surely, political theory) is rather more than a spectator sport. For better or for worse, as biopolitics it is life itself, and always has been.

From Here

A revised (mostly shortened) version of a paper that I gave at UBC in October. This version was presented at the Modern Languages Association, here in Vancouver a couple of days ago, for a panel on “Rhetoric of Crisis and the Politics of Cuts”.

“From Here: ‘Flexible Learning,’ the Specter of MOOCs,
and the University’s ‘New Business Model,’”

A few years ago my university rebranded itself, adopting the slogans “From Here” and “A Place of Mind.” The marketing whizzkids came out with a series of posters that consisted of full-colour photos of scenes from Vancouver and around the British Columbian mainland with the tag-line “From Here.” Few of these images illustrate the university campus or indeed any other recognizable academic premises. So, for instance, one poster depicts a solitary young woman in the middle of what is apparently verdant wilderness, looking out towards mountain peaks in the mid-distance. Printed prominently above her is the declaration “Human Rights Defended From Here.”

From Here

I used to pass this poster every Monday evening as I taught a class on “Human and Civil Rights in Latin America” at the university’s downtown campus, not in some solitary idyll but with a full complement of garrulous students. Each week, the purpose of the poster would bewilder me more. My students equally had no idea. If anything, it seemed (and seems) a bizarrely ethereal conception of the university as a place that (despite the slogan) has no actual physical location, and thus no need of material resources. Who needs buildings? Or even teachers? Or fellow students? A “place of mind” is not, apparently, a place in the real world of human interaction and sociability, even if is a vantage point from which (supposedly) pressing social issues such as human rights might be somehow addressed. A “place of mind” is an idea of the university emptied out. It is the endpoint of the process presciently described by Bill Readings in The University in Ruins when he argues that the university is now organized around a conception of “excellence” that “no longer has a specific content” (17). As Readings puts it, “what is crucial about terms like ‘culture’ and ‘excellence’ (and even ‘University’ at times)”–I would add, today especially “University”–“is that they no longer have specific referents; they no longer refer to a specific set of things or ideas” (17). Hence we are now have a “posthistorical University, the university without an idea” (118). And while it is worth criticizing this in itself–for what, in the end, is a university without ideas?–Readings also argues that this is part and parcel of the institution’s corporatization and its succumbing to the logic of the market. It is further worth pointing out that (for all its aspirations and claims) the university makes for a notably poor and inefficient corporation. Google or Facebook, let alone Ford or General Motors, have a much better sense of what they are about. The university as means without ends, means without meanings, is in no fit shape to compete with them.


Enter the MOOC, or the “Massive Online Open Course,” which strangely mimics the ethereal nature of the “From Here” brand. The MOOC, a set of distributed classes independent of institutions, takes literally the suggestion that learning can take place anywhere. It says: who needs universities, anyway? In response, UBC’s provost, in his gushing introduction to a presentation by Daphne Koller, co-founder of MOOC provider Coursera, declared that “this fundamentally challenges the university’s business model.” Which is revealing not simply because it is above all business that occupies the provost’s mind. But because it is a recognition that in converting itself into a business, the university has done it wrong. No wonder that, despite the gush, the provost could be described as “spooked” by the coming of the MOOCs. And then perhaps on the principle (if indeed principles are at issue) of better the enemy you know than the enemy you don’t, the university quickly and enthusiastically, and with little in the way of consultation, signed up for a partnership with Coursera, this venture-capital upstart, and started throwing resources at what it calls “flexible learning” while withdrawing them from, for instance, the Faculty of Arts. Since then, however, like the most fickle of lovers, we learn (but not why) that we are ditching Coursera for EdX. But whoever the partner may be, MOOCs or something like them, we are breathlessly told, are the future. And the university, which for all its talk of innovation and “from here” is desperate to copy whatever Stanford or Harvard, McGraw-Hill or Pearson, are perceived as doing, and so to welcome what emphatically comes “from there,” has therefore jumped on this bandwagon with a vengeance.

The problem is this: MOOCs and the like can only be framed as the future by means of a shocking ignorance or amnesia about the past. For almost everything that this so-called revolution in learning claims to offer was promised, and indeed anxiously anticipated, by an earlier generation of theorists and critics of higher education, such as Ivan Illich and Paulo Freire. We should, after all, hardly fear a challenge to the education system. The university has historically been challenged, and rightly so, on a whole series of counts. Massive Open education has been a radical dream for at least half a century. What is new with the MOOC is only its cooptation by capital, and the supine and superficial reaction it has provoked in university leaders who have forgotten the true purpose of education. Educational technologists Brian Lamb and Jim Groom argue that we have to “reclaim innovation,” for there is nothing innovative about “bringing things to market.” There is nothing innovative about selling things. Innovation has to be reclaimed from this banal reduction to the norms of the market. Similarly, we have to reclaim the MOOC. Rather than the lack of ambition inherent in the notion of responding to McGraw-Hill, our aim should be to continue the best traditions of the university, even and especially when they involve long-standing critiques of the university. And we can, and should, do it (really) “from here.”

Read this as a PDF document.

Ifigenia I

Teresa de la Parra, Ifigenia

Teresa de la Parra’s Ifigenia: Diario de una señorita que escribió porque se fastidiaba gives us women’s writing twice over: not only is de la Parra herself a woman writer, so is her protagonist, María Eugenia Alonso. Indeed, almost the entirety of the book is presented as María Eugenia’s writing, in diverse genres, the first section being a letter from Venezuela to her friend, Cristina de Iturbe, whom she last saw in France. Or, as the section heading has it, it is “a very long letter in which things are told as they are in novels” (3). Which, however, interestingly distinguishes protagonist from author: if Teresa de la Parra is writing a novel, her heroine by contrast writes something that is (only?) like a novel. She is, in short, a woman writing but perhaps not really a “woman writer” or “author,” someone defined by and recognized for what she writes. As the novel’s subtitle suggests, writing is important and yet also somehow only a phase for María Eugenia: she is a “young lady who wrote because she was bored.” This indicates that writing is some kind of psychological escape or relief. But on the other hand, if she had not been bored, perhaps she would not have written; and the use of the past tense implies that she no longer writes. In short, the novel offers the possibility of an investigation into why (Latin American) women write, and why they don’t, and what stops them from becoming “writers” or authors (authorities?) in the fullest sense of the term.

María Eugenia opens her long letter to her friend by apologizing for the fact that she has not written. Her first line is: “At last I’m writing to you,” as though writing were the culmination of a lengthy process, here much delayed. She then refers immediately to a long letter that she had “thought to write you from Paris, and which I already began to draft in my head” (3). So the letter we’re reading is a delayed compensation or replacement for a letter that was never written (except in its would-be author’s head). In lieu of that letter, Cristina has so far written no more than postcards–and it’s clear that for María Eugenia, these don’t really count; we certainly have no idea what they may have said. We do, however, have a sense of what an earlier letter might have contained: if she had written while she was still en route between Paris and Venezuela, it would have been full of the optimism she felt at the time. And though María Eugenia claims she doesn’t know how to lie when she writes, arguing therefore that writing is somehow more honest than the spoken word, an optimistic letter would have been profoundly deceptive.

For the surprising truth that María Eugenia has discovered on her return home to the land of her birth is that her riches and privilege were all illusory: everything has been spent and/or stolen; she is dependent on the generosity of her family; and she finds herself practically confined to her grandmother’s house in Caracas, her only possible salvation a good marriage to an eligible bachelor. This is the situation she has now to confess through writing, though she also recognizes that there is something entertaining about the tale of her decline and fall: it’s “not so much humiliating as picturesque, interesting, and somewhat medieval” (3). In short, her life has come to approximate a Gothic romance: a classically feminine (and often derided) genre in which defenceless damsels routinely find themselves incarcerated in an unfamiliar environment, hoping for a dashing young man to save them. María Eugenia can write the story of her life as though it were a novel because there is now something novelistic about it. It is as though she were acting out a script, something that has already been written down, and yet the disappointment of economic distress is tempered, if not redeemed, by its aestheticization, by the fact that her plight can at least be represented and recorded, albeit in a derivative language and structure, borrowed from popular culture.