La noche de Tlatelolco


One of the repeated chants of Mexico’s student movement in the 1960s, among the many reproduced in Elena Poniatowska’s La noche de Tlatelolco, is a demand for dialogue: “DIA-LOGUE-DIA-LOGUE-DIA-LOGUE-DIA-LOGUE-DIA-LOGUE.” As one of her informants puts it, this is because “the government’s been talking to itself for fifty years now” (30; 38); or as another puts it, “The PRI,” the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, “doesn’t go in for dialogues, just monologues” (86; 90). Hence no doubt the form of Poniatowska’s own book, composed as it is of a multitude of snippets (of interviews, pronouncements, chants, newspaper articles, and so on) from all sides. Dialogue proved impossible in the real world, on the streets or in council chambers, as it was cut short by the violent repression of the student movement, the imprisonment of its leaders, and particularly by the massacre at Tlatelolco, in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, that gives this book its title. But it is as though that impossible dialogue were now (almost) realized on the page as slogans face headlines, and witnesses from a variety of backgrounds speak of their experiences, one after another. Moreover, as Poniatowska makes little overt effort to impose a unified narrative or reconcile disparities (though there is no doubt that there is artfulness and intention in the ordering and placement of the various fragments), it is almost as if we catch that dialogue in midstream, any conclusion endlessly postponed.

But I say that this fantasy of dialogue is only almost realized on the page, not merely because it is in the nature of testimonio (as we have seen for instance with Biografía de un cimarrón) that the written word betrays, by fixing and so deadening, oral expression. It is also that the extreme fragmentation here threatens to undermine any attempt to make sense at all, refusing not only the forced coherence of the authoritarian state but also any unity to which the student movement itself might aspire. Even the chant itself, as it is printed here, breaks down the demand for dialogue into its constituent syllables and no longer respects either the unity of the word or its separation from any other: “DIA-LO-GO-DIA-LO-GO-DIA-LO-GO-DIA-LO-GO-DIA-LO-GO-DIA-LO-GO.” In the frenetic repetition of the march, meaning slips away to be replaced by sheer sound, by elements that could be recombined in more than one way, to more than one end or effect. The onus then is on the reader to pick up and combine the pieces, but even so it is not clear that any single narrative could ever gather together all the fragments and make them cohere. But then surely this is part of the point: if ever there had once been a chance for dialogue, now not even literature (or testimonio) can bring that moment back.

Poniatowska does not claim to establish the truth of what happened at Tlatelolco. Even as she effectively undermines the official version of events, she makes little attempt to substitute it with a new, more authoritative, version. She wrests the monopoly of the truth from the state, without presuming to claim ownership of it herself.

For hers is less a fact-finding mission than a therapeutic howl that puts language to the ultimate test. As she says in one of her very few editorial interventions, halfway through the book, even to consider delving for the truth would be somehow offensive to the victims: “Grief is a very personal thing. Putting it into words is almost unbearable; hence asking questions, digging for facts, borders on an invasion of people’s privacy” (199; 164). Instead, what she aims to provide is a space for the expression of that inexpressive grief that makes the animal within us (bare, unqualified life) come to the fore, as with the mother that Poniatowska describes as “so stunned that for days and days she uttered scarcely a word, and then suddenly, like a wounded animal–an animal whose belly is being ripped apart–she let out a hoarse, heart-rending cry, from the very center of her life.” This is “the sort of wild keening that is the end of everything, the wail of ultimate pain from the wound that will never heal” (199; 164). As such, even to call La noche de Tlatelolco an exercise in therapy is to say too much, as it would imply that healing can someday come–a claim as offensive and intolerable as the high-handed notion that there is some relationship between truth and reconciliation, or even that either were ever desirable. No. What matters is less what these fragments say than what they can never say, or what they say only by revealing the insufficiency and arrogance of any claims to truth or certainty. These pages, if they express anything, are the place for “the mute cry that stuck in thousands of throats, the blind grief in thousands of horror-stricken eyes on October 2, 1968, the night of Tlatelolco” (199; 164).

See also: Testimonio and the Politics of Truth.

Delirio I

Laura Restrepo, Delirio

What exactly is the delirium to which Laura Restrepo’s Delirio refers? In the first instance, it is the mental collapse suffered by the central character, Agustina Londoño, in the brief period while her husband, a dog-food salesman named Aguilar, is away on a business trip. For on his return she is gone from the house, and turns out to be holed up in a luxury hotel where she had booked in with a strange man who has left her almost catatonic, distraught and unrecognizable. The novel is driven, then, by this initial mystery: what was she doing there and what has caused such a drastic disturbance of her senses? Yet as her husband plunges into this investigation, it is soon revealed that Agustina’s breakdown has deep roots, and Aguilar has to acknowledge how little he really knows of his wife, her past, and her family. For it turns out that her madness is neither a new development nor simply a personal matter. She has always been a little “crazy,” and not only in the chic sense of an upper-class rebel who flits between fashionable obsessions: soft drugs, batik, feng shui. She has gained some minor fame for her supposed psychic powers, claiming to be something of a “seer.” More seriously, she comes from a severely dysfunctional upper-class Colombian family, with a distant and unforgiving father, a mother who will do anything to keep up appearances, a heartless older brother, and a younger one who was beaten and then ostracized for his effeminate tendencies. A generation further back, her immigrant grandfather apparently committed suicide while her great-aunt (his sister) was a full-fledged neurotic who had to be tied up to prevent her from masturbating in public. It’s as though madness runs in her veins. But all this dirty linen is resolutely hidden from view: these secrets are teased out slowly over the course of the book, which comprises a series of revelations each more shocking than the last until the final dénouement, the answer to the initial mystery, turns out to be almost a let-down by comparison.

By contrast, if personal and familial insanities are hidden under a thick façade of shame and hypocrisy, the more general social madness that afflicts the country as a whole is hardly a secret at all. This is Colombia sometime in the 1990s, during the heyday of Pablo Escobar and the FARC, and the effects of narcotraffic and guerrilla insurgency are visible on all sides. The highways are unsafe and the Londoños’ lowland estate has essentially been abandoned to the violence. Not that either the capital (where most of the action is set) or even the home provide much in the way of refuge: halfway through the book a huge bomb, for which Escobar happily claims responsibility, rocks the city; and one of Agustina’s most vivid childhood memories is of a security guard bleeding to death on the threshold of her family home. Meanwhile, drug profits fuel a hyperactive economy in which a decadent elite of both old and new money are criminally complicit either directly or indirectly, though laundering, loans, and generalized corruption as the state withers and Bogotá becomes site of a Hobbesian “war of all against all” (21). So Agustina’s personal breakdown, and even her family’s dysfunction, are as much as anything a symptom of long-entrenched class neuroses and devastating free-market psychoses alike. And in turn, perhaps (though Restrepo never really makes this point), the Colombian crisis is merely a symptom or effect of a madness that is as global as the international drug trade itself. This is not merely one person’s temporary estrangement; it is a social psychosis, the insanity of our times. Or better, perhaps: what Restrepo’s novel illustrates is a complex and mobile network of inter-related and mutually determining crises that collectively are not so much dysfunctions as the way the system works (as Deleuze and Guattari note), “by breaking down” (Anti-Oedipus 330). It is precisely this disarticulated but connected multiplicity that constitutes delirium.

So, how to understand this delirium? Aguilar’s quest may start out as rational, forensic, and clinical, the attempt to save–or “win back”–one particular individual, his wife, but it is soon caught up in the vortex. One sign of this is the variety of strategies that he finds himself forced to employ to describe it. In trying to map what he calls the “strange territory that is delirium,” he claims early on that he has “managed to establish two things: one, that it is by nature voracious and can swallow me up as it did her, and two, that the vertiginous rate at which it multiplies means that this is a fight against the clock and what’s more I’ve stepped in too late because I didn’t know soon enough how far the disaster had advanced” (19). Even, then, at this preliminary stage we see not only how the delirium itself has advanced–and it is always, we feel, “too late”–but also the proliferation of metaphors that it invokes. Delirium is both territory and disaster. Indeed it is also, in a martial comparison, a “mystical mania that’s invading the house” (15); both space and what comes to occupy that space. Elsewhere, Agustina’s madness is a “river” that “leaves its traces” in the diverse vessels full of water with which she sprinkles their home in repetitive acts of ritual ablution (15). And it is also a disease, as Agustina’s Aunt Sofi observes, “contagious, like the flu, and when one person in a family has it, everyone catches it in turn, there’s a chain reaction that no one can escape except those who’ve been vaccinated” (41). No wonder that Aguilar worries that he himself has caught the bug: “Could it be my fault that she’s going crazy? Or is her madness infecting me?” (78). Sofi has no doubts: “Now you’re the one who’s raving, Aguilar, that’s exactly what I mean when I say that you let the madness contaminate you” (42). More fundamentally, delirium an “excessive vibration,” something that “simmers inside with slow, hostile reverberation” (33), a set of “bubbles bursting inside her” even as it is also likened to “poisonous fish [that] wander the channels of her brain” (15). Sometimes her dislocation is taken to be the emanation of what Agustina herself calls her “naked soul” (21). Yet it is equally often seen as coming from outside and so is repeatedly compared to demonic “possession,” a word, Aguilar tells us, “which doesn’t even form part of my vocabulary since it belongs to the realm of the irrational, which doesn’t interest me in the slightest” (184).

Finally, then, the way in which language itself is disordered and dishevelled in the attempt to describe the madness is an indication that delirium is above all a linguistic disorder, a subversion of claims to referentiality or representation. Delirium is disarticulation: the taking apart of signifying elements to recompose or decompose them in patterns that are apparently random or at least ultimately incoherent. There is much play with words and narrative in this book, from the very basic elements such as names: “Agustina” herself is an anagram, just one shifted consonant away from “angustia” or “anxiety”; no wonder her obsession with crosswords, the methodical rearrangement of signifiers that gives structure without sense. More broadly and more strikingly, and as is announced in the novel’s opening epigraph that quotes Gore Vidal quoting Henry James’s warning “against the use of a mad person as central character of a narrative” (7), the novel repeatedly and consistently shifts between perspectives, points of view, and narrative voice. From Aguilar to Agustina to her grandfather to her ex-lover and shady friend, from first to second to third person violating conventional syntactic or grammatical rules, run-on sentences tumbling or circling like eddies in a river: Restrepo’s book endlessly flirts with derangement. For it is the search to define or describe, to tell a story about madness that pulls us into the flow that negates that very attempt. It is as though delirium can only be enacted or performed, always escaping any attempt at representation, forcing signification itself to become volatile, unstable, delirious.

An Unspeakably Long Sentence

[Crossposted to Infinite Test].


There’s an extraordinary sentence in Infinite Jest, almost exactly halfway through the novel: on page 488 (out of 981). Or rather, the sentence in fact begins on page 487, continues all the way through page 488, and ends on page 489. So part of what’s extraordinary about it is its sheer length, even in a novel that distinguishes itself throughout for its extension: long paragraphs (just before this sentence, pages 479 to 486 consist of just two paragraphs, each encompassing well over three pages), long chapters or scenes (such as the twenty-page description of the Eschaton game), and of course the novel as a whole. David Foster Wallace specializes in prolixity, which might be described either as a verbose failure of restraint or, more charitably, as a unfettered stream of creativity. Even if we went for the uncharitable view, however, it’s worth noting that failure of restraint is itself a significant theme of the book, many of whose characters are addicts, and whose plot seems increasingly to revolve around a mysterious “Entertainment” that viewers simply can’t stop watching. The novel’s form, then, sometimes seems to mimic its content: it continually oversteps its bounds because it proposes an uninhibited foray through a disordered world, a garrulous guide to competing, cacophonous discourses. Infinite Jest immerses us in a tumultuous flow of language.

Yet this is a novel that is laden with irony. It starts, after all, with a scene (Hal’s university interview) in which verbal articulacy is somehow blocked, and all that emerges from our protagonist’s mouth are grunts or other subhuman noises. In short, this is a book that is equally about constriction as well as capaciousness, order as much as chaos, blockages no less than flows. And the extraordinary sentence that spans pages 488 to 489, at the novel’s very center or heart, concerns the relationship between these two competing forces, call them inertia and momentum, or repression and desire. It suggests that they are not simply opposed, that one can emerge from the other, and perhaps that it’s never entirely clear which is which.

The sentence is also about language. It begins with a reference to “words that are not and can ever be words” (487). Indeed, words are the subject (the grammatical subject as well as the theme): words that seek to emerge, to be brought forth from the throat and body of Lucien Antitoi, a burly French-Canadian storekeeper and (with his brother, Bertraund) would-be terrorist member of a “not very terrifying insurgent cell” in an otherwise Portuguese and Spanish low-rent neighbourhood of Cambridge, Massachusetts (480). Lucien is mute, intellectually disabled in some way, a French Canadian who cannot speak French except for the obscene phrase “Va chier, putain!” that his special-school tutors taught him, cruelly claiming it meant “Look Maman I can speak French and thus finally express my love and devotion to you” (481). So the only snippet of language he possesses is in fact an unwitting misunderstanding, product of a heartless joke or jest in which savage rejection is dressed as proud communication and tenderness. And Lucien is desperate to speak out, to say something, anything, because he has just seen his brother’s head (the head of “the brains of the outfit” [480], and of “the only brother he’s ever had” [486]) shattered by a railroad spike driven with such force that its rusty tip protrudes from the socket of his “former blue right eye” (485). In a store whose front room is cluttered with mirrors, vision has now failed. The culprits of this blinding murder are a squad of sinister “wheelchair assassins,” fanatic Quebecois separatists in search of “an entertainment item” (487) they believe that the Antitoi brothers may have inadvertently acquired. Now their leader, who wears a mask decorated with “an obscenely simple smily-face in thin black lines” is threatening Lucien, who shakes “not from fear so much as in an attempt to form words” (487).

The page-long sentence then describes Lucien’s ghastly death, as he is impaled by his own home-made, sharp-tipped broom, with which he has kept the old shop spotless. The chief wheelchair-bound assassin rams it down his throat and through his stomach until it emerges, forming “an obscene erectile bulge in the back of his red sopped johns” (488). It’s truly a disgusting passage, as the pole is thrust into the man’s open throat, rhythmically accompanied by the repeated chant “In-U-Tile,” as if to confirm that there is something fundamentally useless or superfluous about this extraordinary violence, not least because it symbolically silences someone who already has no voice. As the broom’s shaft descends Lucien’s throat, “small natal cries” are heard, “the strangled impeded sounds of absolute aphonia, the landed-fish gasps that accompany speechlessness in a dream” (488). The strange thing here is that the passage suggests that aphonia or muteness is associated with particular noises: the sounds of silence. So that this silencing also has its peculiarly acoustic signature, and we are asked to imagine hearing the unspoken or unspeakable, with its double implication of what cannot speak and what cannot be spoken because it goes beyond (almost) all representation. Again, however, there is a kind of formal contradiction here, as Foster Wallace takes unreasonable delight in describing this horrific event in great and granular detail, as though to probe the limits of what can or should be said. Hence in part the bloated prose, lingering on “the fibers that protect the esophageal terminus [that] resist and then give with a crunching pop and splat of red that bathes Lucien’s teeth and tongue and makes of itself in the air a spout” (488). There is something here of the slow-motion delight in stylized, even aestheticized, violence that is reminiscent of Sam Peckinpah or Quentin Tarantino. But now the vehicle is the word, rather than the image, and the equivalent of the film director’s slow motion is the author’s run-on sentence.

Lucien dies, but in the process he is portrayed as experiencing a kind of extasis or epiphany. Thus the sentence ends: “as he finally shed his body’s suit, Lucien finds his gut and throat again and newly whole, clean and unimpeded, and is free [. . .] soaring north, sounding a bell-clear and nearly maternal alarmed call-to-arms in all the world’s well-known tongues” (488-9). From mute constriction to polyglot freedom. If this isn’t a flip fantasy designed retrospectively to justify the gross depiction that has immediately proceeded it (and we can’t rule out, I think, that that’s what it is), it is a picture of rebirth that resonates also with the “natal cries” that accompanied the start of the process. It’s a peculiarly monstrous and even perverse parturition, as “the culcate handle navigates the inguinal canal and sigmoid with a queer deep full hot tickle” (488). So is the broom’s slow passage through the body an image of repression or freedom, blockage or flow? Everything becomes unclear or undecidable, precisely at the point at which we are told that clarity and articulacy are achieved at last. Indeed perhaps the strangest thing about it is that this vision of rebirth in grisly death, of “bell-clear” multilingualism forced out of a recalcitrant, mute body via almost impossible violence, turns out to be among the few positive or optimistic notes sounded in the whole book so far.

The Eye of the Beholder

[Crossposted to Infinite Test.]

Madame Psychosis

“Of particular interest are the eyes” (299). Though this is a book with much to say about language and words (not least in the fact that Hal has apparently memorized much of the Oxford English Dictionary; so perhaps has Wallace), it also focuses particular interest on vision and the visual. Hal’s father, James, is after all a film-maker of some sort, who spends ever more of his time shooting and editing avant-garde movies rather than attending to the tennis academy that he founded. And his son Mario, Hal’s elder brother, has also taken up some of this cinematographic obsession with his cinema verité-style documentaries of the academy’s activities. Apparently unconcerned with the competitive sport that dominates the other boys’ lives, his perspective on what goes on around him is frequently mediated through thoughts of its technical reproducibility. As a player about to go on court is retching uncontrollably into a bucket, “Mario is wondering how you could get enough light back here in a tarp-tunnel to film a tense cold pre-match gladiatorial march behind an indoor tarp” (265).

But rather than the technicalities of mediation, for Wallace, or for his characters, vision seems on the whole to promise a dangerous immediacy. This surely is the threat of what looks like being one of the novel’s crucial plot points: the “Entertainment,” the unmarked video cartridge that apparently immobilizes all who watch it. It has even been suggested that this video is part of a clandestine plot launched by Quebecois separatists against the Organization of North American Nations: “The local constabulary were shall we say unprepared for an Entertainment like this” (90). And now it appears that this could be a film shot by Jim Incandenza himself, maybe the last film he ever made: a film whose title and status is unclear, but which may be the fifth iteration of a work called (yes) Infinite Jest. In Incandenza’s filmography, increasingly dominated by unfinished and unreleased films (Too Much Fun; Sorry All Over the Place), Infinite Jest (V?) is described as put out by “Poor Yorick Entertainment Unlimited,” starring “Madame Psychosis.” But it has “no other definitive data”: we are told that “no other scholarly synopsis or report of viewing exists” and “all other comprehensive filmographies have the film either unfinished or UNRELEASED, its Master cartridge either destroyed or vaulted sui testator” (993).

This fatal film, fatal perhaps both to its viewer and its maker, further seems connected to the (attempted?) suicide in some way of its star, a character whose importance to the plot (or what there is of a plot) is slowly being revealed, in fits and starts. For Madame Psychosis is the pseudonym of the mysterious DJ who slips into the radio studio at the dead of night without allowing anyone to see her face: “She is hidden from all view by a jointed triptych screen of cream chiffon that glows red and green in the lights of the phone bank and the cueing panel’s dials and frames her silhouette” (183). And this Madame Psychosis is later identified with Joelle van Dyne, whose most notable quirk is that she goes about with a full veil, and who we see (or don’t exactly see) as she takes an overdose in a friend’s bathroom during a party full of hipster film students and scholars. Throughout the laborious process of cooking up the drugs, she is thinking about her suicidal process as “Too Much Fun” and also casting her mind back to the movies: the films she grew up seeing with her “her own personal Daddy” (237) and the film made by another father figure, Jim Incandenza, that for some reason he had never screened: “Had he even cut the tape into something coherent? [. . .] He never let her see it, not even the dailies. He killed himself less than ninety days later. Fewer than ninety days?” (230).

Psychosis/Joelle is coming to appear central in other ways, too: she is the reason why Hal’s eldest brother, Orin, shifted from tennis to American Football when he saw her (then still unveiled) as a college cheerleader. Transfixed by the sight, he and his room-mate nickname her the “P.G.O.A.T” or “Prettiest Girl Of All Time” (290). They instantly think that she must be out of their league, but it turns out that this is what everyone thinks: her looks are a in fact a curse, and provoke in heterosexual males “a kind of deep phylogenic fear of transhuman beauty” (290). Is this also then the curse that seems to be encoded in Infinite Jest, a fatal visual contact with the aesthetic sublime?* Does this indeed account for the simultaneous, if rather different, anxiety about language and words? Note that, even in her determined preparation for suicide, Joelle’s train of thought is apparently derailed as she hesitates between the grammatical issue of whether it’s right to say “less” or “fewer.” For words in this novel are less about communication and the transmission of experience than they are vehicles of prevarication and denial. And that includes the word “denial” itself, which is lambasted as one of the many clichés that abound in the half-way house for recovering addicts that is emerging as a major locale for much of the novel’s (in)action. If the danger of the visual image seems to be the prospect of its overwhelming intensity, that it is “too much,” even perhaps “too much fun,” the danger of words is that they are quickly deadened and indeed deadening, turning those that utter them into little more than zombies: “I walk around with my arms out straight in front of me and recite these clichés” (271).

And yet the deadening effect of words is also their salvation. There is nothing more frightening for Hal than the prospect of a “conversation” offered him by a therapist who may in fact be his father in disguise. Hal’s response is to debate lexicology: “Implore’s a regular verb, transitive: to call upon, or for, in supplication; to pray to, or for, earnestly; to beseech; to entreat” (28). The whole point of such heart-felt supplications is lost precisely as the meaning of the term is dissected. Likewise, when Hal again faces a therapist, this time demanding that he grieve for his father’s death, his response is to go to a library (“the nearest library with a cutting-edge professional grief- and trauma-therapy section” [255]) so as to bone up on the requisite (clichéd?) responses required of him in the therapeutic situation. Words, (mis)used well, can stave off the threat of emotion and intensity. By contrast, it is suggested, we have little such protection against the image, beyond a clumsy veil.

*Here, a (perhaps apposite) footnote, in that Joelle seems to be suggesting that by the time of her suicide attempt, at least, she is no longer insufferably pretty, but rather insufferably ugly. But the point may turn out to be that extreme beauty is itself a form of extreme ugliness. Or, as the cliché has it, that beauty is always only in the eye of the beholder.

The Wandering Signifier

The Wandering SignifierWhat happens when difference and otherness become subject to literary and cultural representation? What roles is otherness made to play, and what functions are found for the depiction of difference? These are some of the questions Erin Graff Zivin sets out to answer in The Wandering Signifier, where her focus is the “Rhetoric of Jewishness in the Latin American Imaginary.” There are of course plenty of other more obvious social divides in Latin America than that between Jew and non-Jew. There are, in other words, plenty of “other others,” not least the indigenous peoples who were displaced by the arrival of the Europeans, and who have been oppressed ever since, but remain a significant proportion of the population in countries such as Peru, Bolivia, and Guatemala. Or one might think of the African presence, legacy of the slave trade, that has had such an impact in the Caribbean, Brazil, and elsewhere. By contrast, the number of Jews in the region has always been small–albeit significant in pockets such as Buenos Aires and the River Plate region–and their place in Latin America’s often rigid social hierarchies has been much more ambivalent and ambiguous. But Graff Zivin argues that it is in part precisely because of its ambivalences (and perhaps even because of the relative scarcity of “real” Jews) that Jewishness comes strangely to the fore when it comes time for Latin American authors to define their culture’s identity and their own role in shaping it.

By stressing the role or function of otherness, Graff Zivin wants to steer clear of the mundane debates about ethnic or cultural stereotypes. She is not, for instance, all that concerned about the distance between the literary representations of “Jewishness” (a term she consistently places in quotation marks, to signal its constructedness) and the “real” attributes of flesh-and-blood, historical Jews. This distance is undeniable: “real” Jews do not fit well their stereotypical representations, not least because those representations are so contradictory. Jews are portrayed simultaneously as marginal outcasts and as sinisterly powerful; they are reviled for their supposed ugliness and at the same time feared (or desired) for their seductiveness; they are portrayed as both inescapably different and uncannily similar to the white, Western ideal. But while it is no doubt useful to point out the gap between rhetoric (whether racist or idealizing) and reality, Graff Zivin is more interested in the “rhetorical malleability” itself, and in the uses to which it is put in discourses that are often, ostensibly, not about Jews or “Jewishness” at all. Indeed, “Jews” frequently stand in for the “other others” (indigenous peoples, Afro-Latins, and so on) that may impinge more on the project of constructing a sense of Latin American identity, but that for that very reason may be less versatile or less amenable to cultural representation.

The book presents three “scenes” in which “Jewishness” commonly figures: diagnosis, transaction, and conversion. In the first case, “Jews” are often presented as sick or unhealthy; but they are also equally associated with the medical profession. So the figure of the “Jew” can play either role (or both) in the scene of diagnosis. Likewise, in the scenes of transaction, which involve sexuality and money or even the two together, as in the figure of Jewish prostitution, “Jews” are portrayed as both traders and traded. And conversion scenes focus on the figure of the “converso,” the “Jew” (and now the quotation marks take on extra weight) who may or may not be “Jewish” at all, who may provide the model either of successful assimilation or of its utter impossibility. In each case, the book provides deft and convincing (if sometimes strangely truncated) readings of a range of literary texts, canonical and otherwise, from a variety of eras and from Brazil as well as from Spanish America. New light is shed on (for instance) Jorge Isaacs’s classic María and Jorge Luis Borges’s “Emma Zunz” and “Deutches Requiem,” as well as on a Brazilian Samba and more recent stories by Fogwill and Sergio Chefjec. Consistently, Graff Zivin highlights that the diagnoses, transactions, and conversions are not merely thematic objects of representation, but also performatively enacted by the texts themselves:

The diagnosis is thus not merely written about, but enacted as well; the financial or sexual transaction is not just narrated, but the negotiation also happens on the level of discourse; conversion not only appears as a motif, but the narrative itself realizes a textual conversion: it converts its object by assimilating it into the order of representation. (26)

Ultimately, Graff Zivin is most interested in the last of these functions (and she devotes her final chapter to the topic): whether any representation of the other is inevitably also a form of assimilation. Is the other, in short, always and necessarily reduced to a mere rhetorical function or role simply by virtue of its representation? Or is there some resistance or surplus that ensures that something of the other’s otherness survives and even contests its literary representation? Against the claims of philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, this book argues–and for its own sake it has to, in that it, too, quite consciously makes “Jewishness” perform a quite particular function, of helping us to delineate the ethics of representation–that rhetoric doesn’t necessarily exhaust or annihilate real difference. What is less clear is whether Graff Zivin believes that this is always the case, whether (in my terms, if not hers), something always escapes. Her preference, it seems, is towards precisely the kind of careful and self-reflexive accounts that she herself also strives to provide: Borges’s short stories; Ricardo Piglia’s Respiración arficial. This is a book about the ethics of writing that wants to make as few claims upon the other as possible.

But perhaps because of its focus on the ethical dilemma inherent in any attempt to write (about) the other, Graff Zivin’s argument tends towards abstraction. For instance, in her eclectic choice of texts, historical or social context tends to blur, often despite her own best efforts. The problematic raised by the representation of “Jewishness” comes to seem rather similar in Brazil as in Colombia, in the late twentieth century as in the nineteenth. This erasure of history is all the more pronounced when the book dwells on elements of the depiction of “Jewishness” that are drawn from a long tradition dating back to the Middle Ages if not earlier still. Of course, we are dealing here with what is effectively a myth–or a series of closely-related mythic symbolizations. But while a myth, by its very nature, is detached from history and may, in practice, also be transhistorical and transcultural, this does not mean that it is ahistorical. Indeed, treating it as such threatens to confirm its mythic power: in this case, to confirm the notion that the “Jew” (the idea of the “Jew,” not actual Jews) inevitably, and perhaps uniquely, is associated with the same unchanging series of attributes, including (no doubt) the attribute of malleability and textual slipperiness. But surely there are particular moments and particular places in which “Jewishness” takes on specific qualities, while others are discarded or downplayed. And are there not particular occasions when anxiety and/or fascination with Jewishness comes to the fore, and others when it fades into the background or is even forgotten entirely? However much Graff Zivin is clear that she has little wish to dismantle the rhetoric of “Jewishness” entirely, it seems odd to place it on the horizon of all representation of otherness in Latin America as a whole.

Further, the more that in this argument “Jewishness” comes to stand in for language as such–or for the inevitable ethical impasse posed in and by any project of representation–the more that all “Jewish” specificity is lost. Or, to put it another way, the more that the question becomes about ethics per se, the more that Graff Zivin (on her own terms) comes to risk the ethical failure to treat “Jewishness” as anything more than an empty cipher, that could be replaced by any other: indigeneity, blackness, femininity, latinidad… It is one of this book’s many virtues that it is consistently aware (and makes us aware) of this danger. But it is a weakness that in the end it falls into a trap constructed in part in and through its own anxiety to do the right thing.


In Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things George Lakoff argues: first, that emotions are concepts, that they do a form of cognitive work and constitute “an extremely complex conceptual structure” (380); and, second, that these “emotional concepts are embodied, that is, that the actual content of the concepts are correlated with bodily experience” (408).

To prove his argument, he presents dozens of idiomatic sayings or expressions, taking the particular case of anger. Anger, he shows, is conventionally associated with heat (“hot under the collar,” “hot and bothered”), pressure (“burst a blood vessel”), and agitation (“hopping mad,” “quivering with rage”). Such idioms correlate, Lakoff suggests, with a “folk theory” that imagines anger in terms of a contained liquied, an imaginary that enables a whole series of “metaphorical entailments” (384). So anger produces steam (“all steamed up”), can at least temporarily be held back (“bottled up”), but, if it does not find relief (either “vented” or “channeled”) is liable to lead to explosion (“flipping her lid,” “blowing his top”).

Lakoff goes further: he presents a sort of basic narrative of anger in terms of this metaphorical structure. An offending event excites anger, which the victim of the event fist tries to control but then fails, until he or she can enact some retribution for the purported wrong-doing (397-98). This is the embodied folk theory of anger.

Where Lakoff goes out on a limb, however, is with his claim that “the conceptual metaphors and metonymies used in anger are by no means arbitrary; instead they are motivated by our physiology” (407). If we think through the body, it is because somehow the body knows best; the verbal idioms and linguistic categories through which we understand emotion in common parlance are rooted in a primary corporeal experience that is transcultural and transhistorical: “if we look at metaphors and metonymies for anger in the languages of the world, we will not find any that contradict the physiological results” (407).

It is therefore all the more startling that Lakoff moves immediately to a discussion, in very similar terms, of idioms of lust and ultimately the language used to justify rape. Though he is careful to note that he himself in no way condones violence against women, he seems very close to naturalizing and so legitimating the fundamentally sexist “folk argumentation” that claims that (in his words) “a woman with a sexy appearance makes a man who is acting morally less than human. [. . .] To be made less than human is to be injured. [. . .] The only way to make up for being injured is to inflict and injury of the same kind” (414).

If language is only an expression of a somehow more fundamental set of embodied concepts, then those concepts are put beyond reach and thoroughly naturalized. It is surely better to see the body as an always contested (or contestable) point of contact between conceptual schemes of diverse origin, between affect and emotion, and between a social order and a corporeal experience that is never anything other than social. The body, in short, is the site of a habituation whereby (in Pierre Bourdieu’s terms) an arbitrary symbolic power is made, quite literally, to feel timeless and necessary.

Bourdieu tries to capture this notion with the concept of “bodily hexis, which he defines as “a political mythology realized, em-bodied, turned into a permanent disposition, a durable manner of standing, speaking, and thereby of feeling and thinking” (Outline of a Theory of Practice, 92-94). Or, as he puts it elsewhere, in an only very slightly different context:

The practical acts of knowledge and recognition of the magical frontier between the dominant and the dominated that are triggered by the magic of symbolic power and through which the dominated, often unwittingly, sometimes unwillingly contribute to their own domination by tacitly accepting the limits imposed, often take the form of bodily emotions–shame, humiliation, timidity, anxiety, guild–or passions and sentiments–love, admiration, respect. (Masculine Domination 38)

The very fact that we seem to be betrayed by our own bodies, by a logic that precedes or undercuts rationality, can seem to legitimate the structures of power that the body thereby apparently confirms. But it is what Slavoj Zizek, in turn, would call the ideological structure of social reality (which is far from ideology as it is usually conceived) that has itself to be interrogated and overthrown.


Padgett Powell, The Interrogative MoodPadgett Powell’s The Interrogative Mood is many things, but probably not a novel. Still, it asks us to consider the question of what makes a novel. Not that this is the only question it asks.

For the book is composed solely of questions. Every single sentence it contains ends with a question mark. So, more fundamentally, it asks us to consider what makes a question–and if some questions are more questioning or more questionable than others.

Powell tells us that the motivation for exercise was the fact that he continually received, as director of a university program, a series of email messages phrased as questions:

Is it time for the director to have a chat with the provost? Do we recall what the dean promised us last spring? Would it be prudent to assume that history will not repeat itself?

Whatever else these missives were–gentle cajoling, injunctions that feared to reveal their disciplinary status, the sign of a boss who had drunk the management-speak kool-aid–they were surely not really questions.

And so it is with The Interrogative Mood, which interrogates the very act of interrogation, without of course (as in the best interrogations) ever giving up any easy answers.

There are sentences that are open-ended investigations of a theme, attempts to resolve some kind of mystery: “Is there charity? Can there be reason?” (112); “Is semaphore still used at sea or has it been displaced by the digital age?” (113); “Could Oswald have done it alone?” (148). But these are very much in the minority. Very many more of the text’s questions are more like the prompts found in an examination or interview: “Do you know what the longest military siege in history was?” (57); “How fast do the fastest birds fly?” (123); “Have you read much philosophy?” (26); “Can you read music?” (66). And of course: “Is there anything you’d like to ask me?” (69), a question that usually expects no reply.

But the questions soon take on the tone of an examination gone wild: “Is it correct to say that an orange is eponymous? Why is a banana yellow and not banana?” (67); “Is life better or not better now that for the most part we live it without a daily concern with ramparts?” (70). They frequently indulge in wordplay and logical games: “What color is your crowbar?” (92); “Are you more at ease in a veneer of civilization or a true hardwood of barbary?” (114); “At what point is a gosling a goose?” (133). Sometimes, moreover, the questions seem to reveal more about the questioner than they ask of the person questioned: “Isn’t wool a marvel?” (9); “Are you as fond as I of cobalt glass?” (59).

Above all, what the questioning reveals is that a pronounced nostalgia suffuses this interrogative mood. We’re often asked about the past, and about memory: “Do you recall, and did you ever try to use, all-metal roller skates that strapped on over your shoes?” (25); “Doesn’t it seem as if the boardgame called Chinese Checkers was once popular and has now disappeared?” (116). One of the book’s longest sentences concerns the long-vanished roller skates and laments that childhood toys now involve “some Kevlar/Teflon-ey wheels, a microchip gyroscope, a laser level, a GPS, a twenty-four-hour customer-service hotline” and so on (65).

No wonder that it goes strangely unquestioned that there must be some “kernel” to “the demise of the world as we knew it” (117). It is as though this book, so full of questions that turn out not to be questions, ultimately despaired of the very grammatical or linguistic shift on which its existence depends. It is as though it rebelled against its very condition of possibility.

I sympathize with the disquiet that Padgett evinces with the new voice in which bureaucracy speaks: all apparent concern and solicitousness, questioning and asking us to question ourselves, encouraging self-correction as though denying the very existence of a power that could impose resolution from above. But I’m not sure that there is anything very new here.

Language has always been both a means by which power simultaneously operates and disguises its operation. But it has also always provided the possibilities for excess and contradiction that, as this book wryly exemplifies, subvert power’s presumptions and show how precarious is its grip on language. Don’t you think?


My post the other day on the recent Mozilla Drumbeat festival seem to have resonated with others… more what I had to say about language than about the political ambivalence of the open-source and open-education movement, but there we go.

I thought I’d expand further on the language issue. (I’ll have more to say on the political ambivalence later.)

In her comments on my previous post, Nicole Harris says:

I don’t think it is unusual for a European conference to be hosted entirely in English. English is … often an expected outcome when you are bringing people together who don’t share a common language.

Yes, but. The conference’s unthinking monolingualism was especially pronounced in this case:

  • Catalonia is a place where the politics of language are everywhere evident and on the surface. It is impossible to go anywhere in Barcelona without being aware of the consequences of speaking one language rather than another.
  • It may be true, as César notes in response to Brian Lamb’s write-up of the conference, that Barcelonans are “so used to it that we don’t realize anymore”; the same point was made by my friend Jaume Subirana. But wasn’t Drumbeat supposed to be different?
  • Indeed, the whole point of the Drumbeat festival was openness and participation. Having the conference partly in a public space was therefore, I took it, a political and strategic decision. Cathy Davidson, for instance, made a big deal of it in a pre-conference post in which she said that “since we will be located in an actual tent out in Placa dels Angels, the gorgeous plaza in Raval, between the Museum of Modern Art and the FAD, we will involve random participants traversing the square in our learning activities too.”
  • But how is such openness advanced if everything is in English? How many “random participants” took part in the HASTAC activities, especially when, as another HASTAC representative admitted, she “only noticed @HASTAC flyers were all Eng after arriving”?
  • Surely any organization that declares it’s devoted to openness, participation, breaking down borders, and so on, should be aware of the politics of language.
  • Yes, there are plenty of conferences held in Europe that presume to transcend or ignore their local contexts. (The annual gathering of the good and the great and the wealthy at Davos is surely the premier example.) But Drumbeat tried to do something else, however confusedly: it occupied public space in the square, and yet had surprisingly rigid security to prevent outsiders from entering the building itself. It talked the talk, but only in English.

The broader political issues about the relationship between open-source, open-education, and neoliberalism are more important. But, when it comes to language, I don’t want to adopt the cynical whining adopted by Fred’s comment to my previous post, which said that my observations were “largely true, but not very interesting.” How did the enthusiastic desire for insurgency at Drumbeat so soon become bored acceptance of the way things are always done? Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.


Don Delillo, Point Omega cover

The Wednesday quotation, part XIV: Michael Wood in the LRB on Don DeLillo’s Point Omega, whose plot apparently revolves around a woman’s disappearance somewhere in the Southern California desert:

We can’t know whether Jessie is dead or not, whether her life has ended in some sort of Psycho-related horror: perhaps the man in the gallery killed her, inspired by the disjunction of cause and effect to murder the person he might instead have had dinner with. But we can’t just leave her floating between possibilities, and her disappearance, and her father’s sense of loss, are the same either way. DeLillo is not inviting us to think of inscrutable mysteries, he is asking us to weight the interpretative options, like a detective or an art historian. And weighing the options, of course, whichever side we come down on, we have already realised both of them to some degree. [. . .] We have only to hear the word “unthinkable” to start thinking–that’s what the word is for–and all kinds of novelists and philosophers will remind us that Wittgenstein’s excellent advice (“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”) more often than not just can’t be taken. (“The Paranoid Elite” London Review of Books [22 April, 2010], 40)

This resonates, I think, with my comments on What Was Lost, in which Catherine O’Flynn short-circuits the readerly process of being forced to think the unthinkable, to imagine all the various interpretative options that result from a mysterious disappearance, when she gives in to the generic conventions of crime fiction by presenting us the case neatly solved, the cause and effect packaged together at the end of her book.

Joan Lindsay, The Picnic at Hanging Rock cover

I’ve also been thinking of Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, which I read many years ago but which struck me at the time because it defies the convention that suggests that the mystery (again of a missing girl, or here girls, in the desert) should be resolved by the end of the book. You reach the last page no wiser than when you began the first; although perhaps, precisely because you are left “hanging,” in fact you are that little bit wiser than you would otherwise be.