field

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?

party

What’s odd about Walter Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence,” at least from our present context, is how little the essay has to say about power. There is much about violence (of course) and much about the law. But the question of power hardly arises, and when it does its relation to violence and law is unclear.

“Lawmaking is power making,” Benjamin tells us, “and, to that extent, an immediate manifestation of violence. Justice is the principle of all divine end making, power the principle of all mythical lawmaking” (295). Here, on the one hand, law and power are intimately related: to make law is to make power. On the other hand, power and justice are counterpoised: justice relates to ends and to divine violence; power relates (presumably) to means, and to mythical violence.

And this comes immediately after the observation that lawmaking, and so mythical violence, “establishes as law not an end unalloyed with violence, but one necessarily and intimately bound to it, under the title of power” (295). Power, here, is the “title” under which law and violence are “necessarily and intimately” bound one to the other.

This relative silence about power is odd in our present context, because for the past thirty years or so, political theory has been concerned above all with the problem of power. It has been the project of, first, Michel Foucault and, then, Antonio Negri to reconceive power, to rethink its origins and its historical vicissitudes. Indeed, at the core of Foucault’s and Negri’s political philosophy is power’s relocation, even dislocation: Foucault with the concepts of disciplinary, capillary, and (most influentially at present) bio power; Negri with the fundamental distinction between constituent and constituted power.

It’s not immediately clear how to map Benjamin’s essay on to our contemporary concern with power. I’m not convinced by Paul Passavant’s suggestion that we can read “violence” as “power.” That’s a little quick. It’s true that Benjamin indicates that “mythical violence is bloody power” and “divine violence[,] pure power” (297). There’s surely a nexus between violence and power. And there’s no doubt that government without violence, or rather parliaments without “the sense that a lawmaking violence is represented by themselves,” also lacks power, and proves unable to “achieve decrees worthy of this violence” (288). Yet the fact remains that Benjamin’s is a critique of violence, not a critique of power.

I wonder if this is not because, whatever Benjamin’s hesitations towards Bolshevism and the Soviet Union, he is not yet prepared to question the party form. It is not, yet, part of what Althusser would call his “problematic.”

After all, the post-1968, perhaps better post-1956, critique of power for which I have provided the ciphers of Foucault and Negri (but one could add Deleuze and Guattari and even the whole tradition of cultural studies) is premised on an unease with if not outright rejection of the party form. This unease provides the problematic of contemporary political theory. It is only very recently indeed, essentially with Zizek’s somewhat quixotic revival of Lenin, that anybody has had anything much good to say about the party as a mode of political organization. But this reassessment has entailed also a frontal assault on and so acknowledgement of the dominant problematic.

By contrast, Benjamin, for all that he draws on Sorel, is not yet, at least, post-Leninist. This is what is fundamentally alien about his essay.

Benjamin writes of the “state power” that the “proletarian general strike” is set to destroy (291), but in such a way that the phrase “state power” is almost an unexamined tautology. It is certainly not interrogated alongside the “educative power” that, for Gramsci (writing at about the same time), is the power of hegemony incarnated in the party cadre. Gramsci, of course, happily welcomed the notion that the party and the state wielded the same form of power: both aspired to hegemony, to be Prince, old or modern.

And Benjamin, for all the inkling of something like constituent power that this essay so tantalizingly invokes, is not yet able either to critique the party or to suggest an alternative to hegemony.

(Cross-posted to Long Sunday.)