Paper given at “Reflecting on Latin American Studies: Perspectives From 25 Years of Scholarship and Practice”
The 25th Anniversary Conference of the UNC/Duke Consortium in Latin American and Caribbean Studies
Durham and Chapel Hill, NC, February 2015
It would be hard to underestimate the impact on me of the Duke/UNC Program in Latin American Studies (as it was then still called). I arrived at Duke in 1994 without any specific intention to study Latin America: I was interested rather in theoretical questions that involved authors such as Gilles Deleuze, Pierre Bourdieu, and Antonio Negri. But I soon found Latin American Studies to be a productive setting to pose those questions, and the Duke/UNC Program a hub of lively and challenging discussion on precisely the issues that my questions sought to address. How best to think about political agency and organization? What roles were played by culture on the one hand and the state on the other? What concepts best illuminated and explained both contemporary and historical social movements? Asking such questions in the context of specific political and social conjunctures in Latin America, from populist mobilization in Argentina to Maoist insurgency in Peru, forced me continually to reconsider the formulation of my concerns and what was at stake in my investigation, as well as preventing (I hope) my replies from becoming too arid and abstract. The path I took was formed by chance and serendipity: Peronism, for instance, became a key part of my dissertation owing to the fact that I took an inspiring class on the topic with Danny James and Alberto Moreiras; I became fascinated by Sendero Luminoso thanks largely to the opportunity provided by a Ford Foundation-funded exchange with a parallel consortium of institutions in Peru.
I was above all motivated by the fact that the structure of the Duke/UNC Program gave such latitude to student initiatives, and that we had so much input into shaping the intellectual agenda. This was because of the key role played by working groups, run collaboratively with faculty mentors. So Alberto and I, with the help of many others over the years, organized a long-running and very active group on “Culture and State in Latin America,” which became a vital part of the professional and intellectual experience of an entire cohort of graduate students. We invited countless visiting speakers, organized numerous workshops, and contributed to or co-sponsored myriad other events. But the heart and soul of the group were our regular meetings in the house that was the then home of (what was) the Duke Center for Latin American Studies, where we read and debated texts, fuelled by endless supplies of snacks, beer, wine, and pizza, as well as the odd cigarette that would lead program administrator Natalie Hartman to chide us for leaving the butts strewn on the ground outside. These were intense meetings and they made for an experience that has certainly stayed with many of us. Indeed, it would not be far-fetched to say that the “Culture and State” group has had a quite profound effect on an entire field, an impact that is registered in the first place through a whole series of subsequent publications by former working group members. None of this would have been possible without the foresight of those who planned the Duke/UNC Program with such a central role for student/faculty collaboration, and the trust (and resources) that those who administered the program, Natalie Hartman especially, put into our activities.
In my case, what came out of my involvement with the Program and my experience with the “Culture and State” working group was a dissertation, subsequently heavily revised into a book, on “Posthegemony.” Indeed, the concept of posthegemony was first articulated, so far as I am concerned, as part of an event organized in part under the auspices of the Center for Latin American Studies: the 1998 meeting on “Cross-Genealogies and Subaltern Knowledges,” which was also (somewhat notoriously) the last hurrah of the Latin American Subaltern Studies group. In any case, it is in Posthegemony that I ultimately managed to combine the theoretical questions that had first brought me to Duke with the experience in Latin American Studies (and Latin America itself) that led me to refine and even rethink those questions. The book is an ambitious one (in its earlier incarnation as a dissertation, it had a subtitle proclaiming that its historical scope was from October 10, 1492, to April 13, 2002) in which a theoretical argument contesting the concept of hegemony, as made popular in cultural studies, and the notion of civil society, as found often in the social sciences, runs (almost) parallel to studies of socio-political conjunctures in Argentina, Peru, Chile, El Salvador, and Venezuela.
Along the way, I try to articulate a new way of thinking the grounds of politics, and the relationship between culture and state, in terms of affect, habit, and multitude. I argue, in brief, that instead of focusing on ideologies, in the sense of meaningful (mis)representations of social reality, and on discourses, in the sense of systems of significations and beliefs, we would be better off thinking about politics in terms of dispositions of bodies that are animated (and managed) by flows or blockages of energy that never fully enter into conscious calculation or understanding. I further suggest that would-be hegemonic projects that claim to underwrite the legitimacy of a state-centered constituted power are anchored on the simultaneous repudiation and appropriation of a more fundamental constituent power that constantly exceeds their grasp. My mantra, the slogan that repeats throughout the book across its various contexts from the initial moments of Spanish colonization in the Americas to the so-called Latin American “left turns” of the past twenty years, is that “something always escapes”: something escapes both the institutionalized organization of political movements and the concepts and theories (hegemony theory, civil society theory) that are invoked to explain and understand them.
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