After Posthegemony


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

“After Posthegemony”

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.

Read more… (.pdf document)


Further to discussions about the field of Latin American literary and cultural studies, Gareth Williams has kindly made available his essay “Deconstruction and Subaltern Studies, or, a Wrench in the Latin Americanist Assembly Line” (.pdf file). This is the English version of his contribution to Hernán Vidal’s Treinta años de estudios literarios/culturales latinoamericanistas en los Estados Unidos, a book which, as I have noted, is not easy to obtain.

Williams’s essay does many things: it provides a counter-history of the Latin American studies group, its demise, and the subsequent “end of the alliances”; it is an argument for the role of deconstruction and against the ideological misreadings of deconstruction within Latin Americanism; and it is an empassioned plea for a new relation to the field.

Three brief quotations, then. First, a salutary caution about any declaration of manifestos:

The last twenty years have coincided with the full-blown consolidation of the neoliberal corporate university in the United States and beyond. In this time I have been struck by the way U.S.-based Latin Americanism has succumbed increasingly to the false authority of phrases such as “what we need to do . . . ” or “what should be done is . . .” which are repeated with disconcerting ease in both writings and professional meetings alike. Of course, what these sentences generally do is function as stand-ins for actual conceptual labor, and it is perfectly understandable that Latin Americanists based in Latin America, for example, should take umbrage at such phrases since they are by no means completely disconnected from the far reaching babble of contemporary corporate arrogance. (2-3)

Second, another account of the “end of the alliances”:

At the Latin American Studies Association International Conference that took place in Washington D.C. in early September 2001, Néstor García Canclini announced the “end of the alliance” between the varying strands contained within the Latin American cultural studies paradigm. I do not mean he inaugurated the end of that alliance. I think he was merely responding to the fact that university discourse on Latin America, in all its distinct registers and loci of enunciation, had definitively succumbed to the corporate logics of market forces; that is, that Latin Americanism had embraced the commodity fetishism of its own thought and language, without further ado, and had become nothing more than market force and competition in action. Needless to say, without a commitment to collective theoretical reflection this situation will not improve, because the alternative is that prospective students to Ph.D. programs who ask questions such as “Does your department do postcolonial theory?” will be perfectly justified in reproducing the banal competition of the Latin Americanist assembly line. (20)

And third, a discussion of the “decision for vitality” that faces us:

It is up to all of us to assume responsibility for, or to turn our backs on, the practical and theoretical decision for the struggle of the part of those who have no part (and, therefore, for philosophy as class struggle at the theoretical level). We can decide for the positivity of the police or decide for affirmative political subjectification. Make no mistake, it is a vital decision, a decision for vitality, or not, in which the future lasts forever with or without us. The decision for the future, indeed, the decision that there be a future for the democratic practice of a theoretical politics of culture in Latin Americanism, is, in this regard, yours, ours, for the taking. That decision for the future, within the context of the corporate police university, is a decision for real philosophical and political responsibility toward Latin America and its truth, in theory and in practice. It is a decision for something other than the reduction of thought to the technical reproduction of our corporate police order and its ideas. (54-55)

Beyond this, I won’t summarize the entire essay; I urge you to read it.

Moreover, in the particular context of this blog, the essay is also important in that it offers a strong defence of at least one version of “posthegemony,” drawing on Alberto Moreiras’s The Exhaustion of Difference. I have outlined my own differences with Gareth and Alberto’s versions of posthegemony elsewhere (.pdf file), so I won’t do so again at length now. I’ll merely note that here, Gareth also takes up Rancière’s distinction between police and politics, rightly (I think) arguing that projects for hegemony are always in the end police actions, rather than politics strictu sensu. But his suggestion seems to be that politics in this sense is always democratic; i.e. that the state always and only works through “police thought’s calculated management and distribution of places, powers, functions, locations and loci of enunciation” (52).

I beg to differ, and indeed would point to Gareth’s own marvelous analysis of the “Atlacatl affect” in The Other Side of the Popular as evidence to the contrary. In this analysis, Gareth shows how the elite Atlacatl battalion of the Salvadoran army, responsible for the El Mozote massacre among other grievous war crimes, equally incarnated an excess that went beyond any logic of distribution or calculation. And of course, we see precisely such excess in, say, Guantánamo, or indeed anywhere and everywhere else the state imprints itself on our bodies. To put this another way, the state, too, is posthegemonic; it is not a question of positing a putatively liberating posthegemony against a stultifying hegemony. Of course, we need to be done with the concept of hegemony, but that in itself is not enough. Posthegemony opens up the terrain on which the grounds of politics and policing alike are disputed by multiple actors. A politics of affirmation is not exhausted by deconstruction and its “the negative work it carries out against hegemony” (46).

Or to put things in still other terms, the more local ones of the discussion of the field of Latin Americanism: it is surely not enough simply to put a “wrench in the Latin Americanist assembly line.” That assembly line also works by breaking down, by breaking up alliances and cutting the wind from our sails. Heck, sometimes we must surely all want the university to be a place of rational calculation. But each and every day we can come up with evidence that it is anything but. Hence a politics of knowledge must also go beyond critique, even beyond the most rigorous and unflinching critique provided by deconstruction.


Some of the following has been lightly edited as I have been, quite rightly, reproached by Idelber Avelar in the comments. I haven’t completely revised this post, however, in part because I think that my basic point stands: for those interested in rethinking the field of Latin American studies, and encouraging new forms of communication, blogs are an obvious resource. And in part I don’t want to rewrite history to pretend that I didn’t indeed let a number of important blogs slip my mind when originally writing it, or that there are certainly others of which I have been ignorant. Perhaps my error, as Idelber implies, was indeed that I was thinking about the field in overly conventional ways.

One thing that occurs to me as I read some of Alberto Moreiras’s lengthy and thought-provoking comments to recent posts here is that he should start up his own blog!

I’m serious. Yes, Aberdeen’s Centre for Modern Thought does run a blog, and Alberto has used it on occasion, particularly in relation to specific events. See this comment on Esposito, for instance. But mainly the Centre uses its blog for administrative purposes, highlighting upcoming events, and comments such as Alberto’s soon get lost.

But on his own blog, Alberto could develop some of these thoughts informally. Others could respond. And there would be the opportunity for new connections. For instance, take Alberto’s important question: “What if biopolitical democracy is a contradiction in terms. What if there can and will be no biopolitical democracy? Where does that leave us?” This immediately links up with Jodi Dean’s current project of working through the classic texts on biopolitics, or some of Steven Shaviro or Nate Holdren‘s recent ruminations on the topic.

Of course, there are many reasons not to start a blog: lack of interest, lack of time (but for those evenings when there is no film worth watching at the video store…), and so on, and I’ve often enough been ambivalent about the process myself. Alberto should feel no compunction to take my advice!

I’m also struck by the fact that in the field of (broadly) Latin American literary and cultural studies, this here blog, Posthegemony, is one of relatively few out there. (But see update and correction below…) One example that immediately comes to mind is Idelber Avelar’s O Biscoito Fino e a massa. Horacio Legras briefly blogged at 13AVentana=13AWindow, but just at the moment his exuberance for Obama seems to have left him speechless. There are a number of Latin American Political Science blogs such as Greg Weeks’s Two Weeks Notice. Plus, more broadly in Hispanic Studies, I would be remiss if I did not mention Jorge Ledo’s elegant ficta eloquentia.

Yet, in the context of a discussion of the state of the field and how one might reinvent intellectual freedom within it, or despite it, one might think of taking a leaf out of the book of the many blogging denizens of Philosophy (surely, a far more hostile and fractured field). They consistently show, as in the current buzz around speculative realism, that this informal sphere of discussion and collaboration can, at least at times, prove very rewarding and productive.

Update: In comments, Idelber upbraids me for missing many Argentine and Brazilian blogs. Specifically, he mentions the following: Nación Apache, La lectora provisoria, Wimbledon, Contemporânea, and Odisséia Literária. He later also gives us: Pensar enlouquece, Tiago Dória (on culture and technology), Liberal Libertário Libertino (especially the posts on race) and Consenso, só no paredão (by Alexandre Nodari, a friend and student of Raúl Antelo’s).

It’s true that I was implicitly thinking of North American-based blogs of a certain type. And I thank Idelber to introducing me to blogs previously unknown to me. I welcome more suggestions.

So let me add the following, which I do follow, a couple of which are indeed based in the US, and which collectively show something of a Peruvianist bias on my part: alma matinal, Kolumna Okupa, Puente Aéreo, Río Fugitivo, Professor Zero, and the Página de Gonzalo Portocarrero.

Oh, and this reminds me that I should update my blogroll sooner rather than later. (Though I understand that they are rather passé these days.)

Further update: Rather than overburden this post with too much retrospective elaboration, here’s a link to a talk by Idelber himself on blogging and academia: “Cultural Studies in the Blogosphere: Academics meet new Technologies of Online Publication”. A longer version of this paper is to be found in Erin Graff Zinn’s The Ethics of Latin American Literary Criticism: Reading Otherwise.


In a recent post, I suggested that “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?”

Alberto Moreiras responds vigorously:

I don’t agree with you about the doldrums years. I think in fact they were the years where the seeds of a genuinely non-identitarian reflection on Latin American culture and history were planted. They were the best years our professional field has had in the last two hundred or so, because they remain as the only years that indicate the promise of a future for thought in our field. They were also the years where a certain intense clarity finally made itself present. There is now a space for a theoretically informed non-identitarian, republican Latin Americanism, free from the bourgeois consciousness that has long plagued it.

I’d almost like to leave it at that, and say: discuss.

But to move discussion on, let me say that I think that what’s at issue here is the nature of the field, perhaps the nature of any intellectual or disciplinary field, and what’s expected from it. Or as Alberto goes on to say: “The real issue runs a lot deeper than that. [. . .] What kind of a ‘field’ do you want to have? And what is keeping you from it?”

In my previous post, I coupled my characterization of the field’s “doldrums” with a brief mention of Néstor García Canclini’s now (in)famous declaration in 2001 that we’d reached the “end of the alliances” that had hitherto structured the field. I even gave a reference for this allusion: Abril Trigo’s account of Latin American Cultural Studies. This was because I still had the book to hand, having earlier written a critique of some of Trigo’s positions.

It’s clear that we are still working through different narratives and explanations of what happened in 2001, and what has happened since. Here, then, is Trigo’s account:

The meetings at LASA 2001 in Washington made official the breakup of fragile alliances as well as the exhaustion of some theoretical positions; its dramatic climax was the announcement of the disbanding of the Latin American Studies Group. The exhaustion of those particular theoretical positions was posited by some, like Beverley and Moreiras, as the exhaustion of Latin American cultural studies tout court, whose final demise was triumphantly declared. This is particularly so in Moreiras’s verdict of the ‘exhaustion of difference,’ which makes of Latin American cultural studies a radical practice, suggesting that the only remaining option of any real resistance to globalization would be the critical mourning of the ruins (2001). Latin American cultural studies and any other form of political resistance are disposed of in a single blow. In our view, exactly the opposite is true. These events culminated a gradual process of readjustment of the different positions and a steady return to the vilified classics of Latin American critical thought, particularly the fecund production of the 1960s and 1970s, including dependency theory, liberation theology and philosophy of liberation, the pedagogy of the oppressed, the theories of internal colonialism, third cinema, collective theater, and transculturation. The cycle, which started with the optimistic drive of the forerunners in the 1970s, has closed upon itself. (367-68)

I’ll note just a couple of things about this account. First of all, Trigo clearly does not think that the field has been in the doldrums over the past ten years. For him, the “end of the alliances” enabled the rediscovery of “the fecund production of the 1960s and 1970s.” In going back twenty years, the field could discover its true sense of purpose. And yet, second, there is a sense of closure, a “cycle” that has “closed upon itself.” Moreover, one might ask, what does it mean to return in this way to dependency theory et. al.? You can never go home again, after all.

Now an earlier version of Moreiras’s account of the same dispersal of the late 1990s, early 2000s:

Perhaps the labour of our cultural studies is also and must be essentially shot through with its own ruin: it may be that it is only in the experience of the ruin of thinking that any thinking project can sustain itself as such; without it, thought is doomed to be nothing but programmatic calculation and progressive ‘explicitation’ of an ideological order. That would be a sort of success for Latin American cultural studies: to have established itself as a programme, to have accomplished a becoming into the new disciplinary order of the time of post-Area Studies, the time of globalization. But that success, as such, could be nothing but a failure. If so, then the failure, a certain failure, could also be (why not?) a certain form of success.

Two days after the LASA meeting, al-Qaeda terrorists attacked the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. It is difficult not to note now that this event contaminated the experience of the academic meeting that had just ended only a few miles away from the site of the Pentagon explosion. In the third panel of the series on cultural studies (and on the basis of previous comments from John Beverley, Nelly Richard and others), Néstor García Canclini had declared the ‘end of the alliance’ that had kept open at least the possibility of pretending that our field of reflection was structured by common political lines and intellectual presuppositions. Perhaps September 11, then, radicalized the end of that alliance. The New York explosion changed our world and will provoke such adjustments in the North/South relation that it is perhaps absolutely urgent to let thought drift into its own uncompromising radicality. Under the guise of the alliance, under the guise of the conceit that made us work towards the consolidation of a disciplinary convergence in Latin American cultural studies, we were perhaps only rehearsing the emotional residue of the emerging moment of the new paradigm, somewhere in the very early 1990s. Liberation from that conceit might now make it possible for the different tendencies to stop containing their own energy, to stop handcuffing their own internal logics. No more excuses from now on, which is of course a threatening situation to the professional stability of perhaps the bravest thinkers, the youngest among them at least, given the sorry state of affairs in the American university today, which is experiencing one of its worst corporate moments since the 1930s. (“Regional Intellectuals: The Stain in their Eye”, Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies 11.3 [December 2002], p. 311f.)

Well, here we are, and the situation of the university has hardly improved. Indeed, the job market this last year was, the MLA tells us, the worst since it started keeping records. In that context, what kind of field is possible or desirable? And how can it build on its own history, without enclosing itself in nostalgia?


Encouraged by a quite marvellous response to my brief discussion of pre-emptive criticisms of posthegemony (and many thanks to “a latinamericanist”), here’s another of those shallow swipes, from one of Abril Trigo’s introductory overviews in The Latin American Cultural Studies Reader:

Deconstructionists stretched subaltern studies’ central concept of subalternity, based upon the irrepresentability of the subaltern, inasmuch as she or he is always exterior to any hegemonic formation, to its very limits, and rejected any form of strategic suture as a mere disabling of the subaltern absolute epistemological negativity. In this manner, deconstructionists took the subalternist project to its logical consequences: the blind alley of post-hegemony and postpolitics as the ultimate radicalization (Moreiras 1996a). Cornered by its own aporias, subalternism reacted with a radical return to the very positions against which it had built its identity. This internal polemic [between deconstruction and an affirmation of the nation-state]–personal differences aside–led to the dissolution of the Latin American Subaltern Studies Group. (369)

Now, there has been an enormous amount of ink spilled on the question of why the Latin American subaltern studies group split up–no doubt more ink thank the group itself spilled while it existed. The latest arena for the strangely persistent return to this traumatic demise is Hernán Vidal’s Treinta años de estudios literarios/culturales latinoamericanistas en los Estados Unidos (which would seem strangely difficult to get hold of; it doesn’t help that the webpage of the Instituto Internacional de Literatura Iberoamericana is so out of date it still lists Mabel Moraña as its director of publications; well, there’s a whole ‘nother history of institutional struggles there…). I don’t propose to add to the discussion of the split, or at least not now.

But Trigo’s passing reference to the “blind alley of post-hegemony” has always struck me as odd, and for some time I really did think of referring to it in the introduction to my book.

It’s odd not least because Trigo is undercutting the authors, and indeed even the specific essays, that he is supposed here to be introducing: he specifically name-checks Alberto Moreiras (the reference is to “Elementos de la articulación teórica para el subalternismo latinoamericano: Candido y Borges”), whose essay “Irruption and Conservation: Some Conditions of Latin Americanist Critique” is included in the reader’s final section; and that section also includes George Yúdice’s “Latin American Intellectuals in a Post-Hegemonic Era.”

But it’s odd also because in fact Alberto’s essay in this volume doesn’t even mention posthegemony, while Yúdice (whose essay does) is no deconstructionist, was never a member of the subaltern studies group, and is surely not the target of Trigo’s critique.

So the sideswipe is doubly misplaced: it shouldn’t (one would have thought) be here at all, as a matter of professional responsibility if not courtesy; and it appears rather to miss, or to mistake, its mark.

Not to mention that the whole point of the deconstructionist version of subaltern studies is precisely to avoid closure, to hold off the kinds of political and theoretical suturing that could fit the metaphor of a “blind alley.” Or even the fact that, as I hope to show, there is plenty more down this alley than Trigo lets on.

Indeed, if we are to talk of metaphors drawn from roads and alleys, it is as through Trigo wants to place a “no through road” sign squarely in front of a wide-open vista whose existence he has to acknowledge, however awkwardly, but which he would rather nobody bothered to explore. “Stick to the highway,” he’s telling us.


Somewhat late in the day, there’s been a minor dust-up in the Spivak event over the concept of a “higher eclecticism.” See Scott Kaufman’s post at the Valve, “Arguments about Higher Eclecticism, as Illustrated by Two Paintings with One Name”.

Sketch for Sgt Pepper album cover(Oh, and let me say that I have never liked Mark Tansey’s work. I remember seeing him speak once, and asking a question suggesting he was just a highbrow Peter Blake.)

I felt myself rather misrepresented in that post (as I try to clarify in the subsequent comments). But the fact that my name was invoked arises in part from my suggestions at various times that it’d be worth formulating some kind of defence of eclecticism, if not necessarily a “higher eclecticism.”

As a place-holder for such a defence, let me rescue and elaborate slightly upon a comment I made elsewhere, in the discussion that originally led up to the Spivak symposium…

I have no real idea what John Holbo means by “higher eclecticism,” but in many ways I’d happily admit that my own work is concerned with, and operates though, a form of (perhaps lowdown and dirty) eclecticism.

Put it this way: I enjoy and find productive the activity of bringing together apparently divergent traditions of thought and cultural enquiry, and seeing what emerges from the ensuing collision.

I do that both with theorists (Deleuze and Bourdieu, for instance, who are certainly unlikely bedmates), but also more generally with Area Studies and Theory, and/or with Latin American reflections on culture and Anglo-American approaches to culture.

I wouldn’t want to argue that there’s some natural affinity between these traditions, nor that their contradictions or differences can be resolved. It’s not an attempt to totalize or homogenize. Far from it, in fact; I’d rather preserve their heterogeneity. But I do think that the sparks that fly off in the encounters or clashes between divergent series is indeed illuminating. I’m thinking here in part of Deleuze’s reflections on the series, and the “strange attractor” that communicates between them like a lightning flash.

Anyhow, I’m not necessarily advocating this as some kind of transferable master plan. (There might after all be some self-contradiction were I to do so…) But it works well enough for me.

And if that’s “higher eclecticism,” then so be it.

Though if I were to be suitably self-regarding and self-conscious, I’d probably turn to concepts within the traditions I work with–such as “mestizaje” or “transculturation” or “hybridity,” say–as my own personal descriptors. After all, these terms (hybridity and so on) are crucial to the way in which we’ve understood Latin American (and more generally, postcolonial) culture. Why not work with them? Even if we have to differentiate between different modes of eclecticism (higher vs. lower, dirty vs. clean, I don’t know), just as Alberto Moreiras distinguishes a “savage” hybridity.

But if the alternative to eclecticism is disciplinarity, purity, respect for lineage… then I’ll choose eclecticism every time.