Ifigenia I

Teresa de la Parra, Ifigenia

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

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

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

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, perhaps 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 also 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 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 Map and the Territory

[Crossposted to Infinite Test.]

Eschaton court

Infinite Jest is very much concerned with games, both “real” games, such as tennis, and others: literary games, for instance, or any of the other myriad “games people play.” And part of the game is that real games can stand in for others, that what appears to be merely a game can turn out to be quite “real” or serious, and that it is never quite clear where the game (or the gaming) ends and where something else, if indeed there is anything else, begins. How seriously then should we take these games? Does the book, for example, imply a critique of the hothouse atmosphere of the tennis academy in which hitting a yellow ball back and forth across a three-foot-high net is subject to such close scrutiny and psychic investment? Or is the game a metaphor for broader realities, perhaps even the vehicle through which what really counts looms larger, more intensely than it does elsewhere?

There is perhaps no better example of this conundrum than the game of Eschaton, whose very name, with its invocation of Armageddon and Endtimes, suggests something very serious indeed. Yet it is also a trivialization of world-historical affairs, a reduction of thermonuclear annihilation to a mere matter of lobbing a few tennis balls around. Until, that is, it turns “serious”… or until we see that it is a game that is taken entirely too seriously. It is hard to decide, and hard to judge how invested we, too, should be in the game’s outcome. Perhaps, in fact, it is nothing more than a distraction: it is after all introduced in terms of its “complete disassociation from the realities of the present” (322). And perhaps, David Foster Wallace seems to be saying, the same goes for the book (even literature as a whole), too: we can never quite know if it is no more than a jest, or if it is absolutely in earnest, perhaps a question of life and death.

Eschaton uses the infrastructure and paraphernalia of tennis, but these are radically repurposed in its gameplay. Across three tennis courts its players are arrayed to correspond to the topography of the Cold War world: there is AMNAT (presumably the USA and NATO) and SOVWAR (the former Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact), as well as REDCHI (Red China), IRLIBSYR (Iran, Libya, Syria), SOUTHAF (South Africa), etc. Each is provided with tennis balls in proportion to their presumed nuclear capability, each of which represents a five-megaton warhead. Players then use tennis rackets to lob these balls/warheads towards their opponents’ territory, on which are to be found pieces of gear (t-shirts, towels, armbands) to indicate various strategic targets: population centers, industrial plants, military installations, and so on. In charge of the whole thing is game-master Otis P. Lord, who trundles a computer on an ungainly old stainless-steel food cart with a dodgy left-front wheel (and an old beach umbrella attached to protect against the elements), with which he computes projected casualties and consequences of each strike, taking into accounts things such as local geography, climactic conditions, the number of sub-code skyscrapers and the like. Essentially, this is RISK for the late twentieth century, played out on an outsized live-action court, making use of its clientele’s rather specialized (tennis) skills, with an added dose of more or less spurious statistical calculation. Its Cold War scenario is, as the narrator comments, also for its twelve-year-old players a “weird kind of nostalgia for stuff you never even knew” (322).

Suddenly, however, things get “real.” Representatives of the major superpowers confer in a space reserved for Sierra Leone as an argument erupts as to the relevance (in terms of “blast area and fire area and pulse-intensity”) of the snow that has started to fall on the court: from the sidelines, the game’s godfather, Michael Pemulis, is shouting out in a rage that “It’s snowing on the goddamn map, not the territory, you dick!” (333). In a move that will decisively up-end this distinction, the player charged with lowly IRLIBSYR’s tiny allocation of warheads decides to fire a shot directly at Ann Ingersoll, SOVWAR’s “Air Marshall,” hitting her smack in the back of the head. Chaos then ensues: Otis Lord declares “Utter Global Crisis,” from the sidelines Pemulis is practically apoplectic (“Players aren’t inside the goddamn game. Players are part of the apparatus of the game. They’re part of the map. [. . .] You do not get points for hitting anybody real” [338]), while everyone else starts pelting balls at each other willy-nilly. The cart-borne computer is overturned in the melée, and Lord, trying to escape the fray, is swept off his feet and ends up with his head plunging through the monitor’s screen.

Meanwhile, off-stage and barely noticed by anyone, is a mint-green Ford sedan idling by the dumpsters.

What, in Infinite Jest is map, and what is territory? What is apparatus, and what is content? The very length of Foster Wallace’s book seems to bespeak an ambition to construct a map that, as in Jorge Luis Borges’s very brief story “Of Exactitude in Science,” may ultimately replace the territory. And it is this same fable that Baudrillard picks up on to describe the postmodern condition:

Henceforth, it is the map that precedes the territory–precession of simulacra–it is the map that engenders the territory and if we were to revive the fable today, it would be the territory whose shreds are slowly rotting across the map. It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges subsist here and there, in the deserts which are no longer those of the Empire, but our own. The desert of the real itself. (“Simulacra and Simulations”)

Reading Infinite Jest, it is tempting to ignore the apparatus, or perhaps to allow oneself to get swallowed up in it, so overwhelming and labyrinthine are its multiple plots and extended cast of characters. There are no doubt many layers of allusion and emplotment that the average reader–that any reader–has to ignore if they want to be immersed in the fictional universe of tennis academies and halfway houses, games real and imagined. And yet immersion means accepting the substitution of map for territory: it means an investment in the literary games that Wallace is playing; it means taking them seriously. For this is a book that, more than many others, demands investment as well as stamina and patience. Yet the book may here, more or less slying, be suggesting that by taking the book with the seriousness required to read it (or keep on reading it) in the first place, we are missing what really matters, which is always on the sidelines, at the edge of our vision. The dumpster, the desert of the real.

And here, an extraordinary music video, whose visuals are inspired by the game of Eschaton (minus its apocalyptic ending):

Ramiro Gómez, “Happy Hills”

Ramiro Gómez, "Yoselin and the glass of water"

Thanks to Kinsey Lane Sullivan in PolicyMic for her profile of Ramiro Gómez, a Los Angeles artist and (ex?)nanny whose ongoing project “Happy Hills” is devoted to “documenting the predominantly Hispanic workforce who work tirelessly behind the scenes to maintain the beautiful imagery of these affluent areas.”

Gómez’s technique involves a) installations featuring cardboard cut-outs of otherwise overlooked service workers (leaf-blowers, cleaners, nannies) in public places and so plain sight and b) interventions into images of pristine homes, taken mostly from magazines and adverts (but also occasionally high art) to reinsert the figures of domestic labour that have been erased or marginalized but without whom none of this would exist.

I particularly like this image, “Portrait of an Affluent Family”:

Ramiro Gómez, "Portrait of an Affluent Family"

The funny thing is that, according to a note on Gómez’s Facebook page, so does the man pictured with his family. I’m not entirely sure what we can gather from that.

Renaming the Desert

La teta asustada poster

“Renaming the Desert: Sound and Image in the Films of Claudia Llosa”

For a film-maker, whom one might suppose to be more concerned with the visual image, Claudia Llosa shows a perhaps surprising interest in language and, indeed, sound. In the first instance, this is manifest in the prominence of indigenous language in both her films, Madeinusa and La teta asustada. In each case, the movie opens, with very little else in the way of preliminaries, to the sound of a song sung in Quechua. In fact, in La teta asustada that is all there is: the screen itself is completely blank. It is as though, instead of the traditional cinematic establishing shot, a panorama that would establish a spatial milieu and setting within which the narrative is then to unfold, we have rather an establishing sound. In Llosa’s films, the action is situated acoustically or linguistically before it finds physical space or a visual field. And in that the specific sound in each case is Quechua folk song, the characters and plot are therefore located in a sonic space defined by the Andean highlands, even when, as in La teta asustada, their physical location is the outskirts of Lima, in the desert littoral. In this film, then, we soon find that there is an ongoing tension between sound and image, language and the things it is to describe or name. If the plot of La teta asustada is driven by fundamental physical and geographical displacement–it revolves around the task of returning the corpse of the principal character’s mother (who sang the opening song) back to her highland village–this is duplicated in its formal structure, by the slippage between what is heard or said and what is seen.

Read more… (pdf file)

Sentencing Canudos

Adriana Johnson, Sentencing Canudos

Within Latin American Studies, people sometimes treat subalternism as a movement that is done and dusted: as though the break-up of the Latin American Subaltern Studies group over a decade ago had meant the end of that particular road. But a book such as Adriana Johnson’s Sentencing Canudos reminds us that this is far from true, and indeed that in some respects we have barely begun the project to re-read the Latin American archive with an eye to the mechanisms of subalternization and resistance.

Canudos, the object of Johnson’s focus, was a settlement in the dry backlands of Bahia, Northeastern Brazil, founded in 1893 by the followers of a charismatic preacher and mystic, Antônio Conselheiro. Viewed as a threat by a range of authorities, from the local church to (eventually) the national government, it was the object of a series of attempts at military pacification, each of which were fiercely resisted. Despite their portrayal as uncivilized savages, its inhabitants managed to embarrass the nascent Republic (established in 1889) by repelling two expeditionary forces of the Brazilian army until, finally, in October 1897 they were overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of men and resources devoted to their extirpation.

The War of Canudos is best-known today thanks to its documentation in a classic text, Os Sertões (1902; translated into English as Rebellion in the Backlands), by Euclides da Cunha, a journalist who had covered the conflict for a São Paulo newspaper. But the story has been told by others in a range of genres, from novels to films, perhaps most notably by the Peruvian Nobel Prize-winner, Mario Vargas Llosa, in The War of the End of the World. And as Johnson observes, Canudos has been taken up by contemporary theorists such as Ernesto Laclau and Slavoj Zizek, who terms it “forever the model of a liberated space, of an alternative community which thoroughly negates the existing state space” (qtd. 80). What happened over a century ago in this remote, impoverished corner of South America seems to have something to say to us not only about the traumas attending the formation of the Brazilian nation state, but also about the perils of political and aesthetic representation in Latin America and about the limits of sovereignty as a whole.

For all the scrutiny they have received, just about everything about Canudos and the violence it provoked is contestable and uncertain: from the size of the settlement or the manner of Conselheiro’s death to whether the Conselheristas’ protest should best be described as political or pre-political, religious millenarianism or atavistic monarchism. Johnson is not so much concerned to establish the truth of Canudos, though she persuasively argues that the community is best seen as a response to an intensification of governance, a “second conquest” whose resultant tensions were inscribed upon the transition from Empire to Republic. She is more interested in the ways in which it has been represented, in terms of a “prose of counter-insurgency” that casts its inhabitants as liminal figures–neither fully belonging to nor fully beyond the national community–in short, as subalterns. She is also interested in the ways in which those representations, above all da Cunha’s, have themselves been received and represented. What explains the success of Os Sertões, its canonization as a model of both insight and judgement?

Johnson dwells at length on the problematics of representation, in its double meaning as portrait and proxy, as aesthetic depiction and political mediation. Likewise she explores the ambivalence of the notion of the “sentence” that provides her work with her title: both linguistic form and juridical decision. She aims to challenge the finality of the sentence, the way in which the Canudenses have been “sentenced to history [. . .] inscribed in history, overtaken by it, condemned to take part in it, turned into its subjects” (163). There’s perhaps no better instance of this than the way in which da Cunha insists that there were no survivors of the conflict, that the rebels were eliminated to the very last man, woman, and child. On the one hand, in his guise of voice for the “voiceless,” he intends both to praise the stubborn resistance of the vanquished and to condemn the excessive force of the victors. But on the other hand, and especially once we note that in fact several scores of the prophets followers emerged alive from the final conflagration, it is as though he himself desired to write out the event more emphatically than even the army had: “By killing off the inhabitants, da Cunha effectively isolates Canudos in time [. . .]. Nothing comes after it, other than his own book, the lullaby to lay them to rest” (167).

The book’s best chapter, however, is the central one on “The Event and the Everyday.” Here Johnson really advances the cause of Subaltern Studies–whereas elsewhere she sometimes comes close merely to repeating and recapitulating the prior work of Ranajit Guha and other South Asian scholars, if now on Latin American terrain. Her point is that subalternization is not only a matter of condemning others to the past, to history (by means of a “denial of coevalness”), or of casting them out spatially, to the margins (the backlands, the borders of the nation state). Subalternity is also about denying ordinary everydayness, which eludes any possibility of hegemony

If [the subaltern’s] everydayness escapes, as happens in the case of Canudos, this happens not simply because the everyday is so banal and familiar as to be unperceived [. . .] but because it has become too unfamiliar to be perceived. This everyday cannot be seen because the ‘forms’ of society are no longer legible there. (86)

Both too familiar and unsettlingly unfamiliar for the forms of literary or state representation, the ordinary everyday is always already posthegemonic.

Here, then, habit comes to the fore: habit as both the structured repetition of daily activities and what resists any attempt to give structure to what is every day slightly different. For habit is a mode of repetition in which what returns or is done again is never precisely the same; it encodes a certain lag, a friction that incarnates an innate heterogeneity. Habit is always opposed to the grid, to precise measurement or to chronometric time. Habit is a domain that has to be “conquered, transformed, and rendered commensurable” (91) by an expansive nation state and market society, even as its regularities and repetitions also subtend and enable structures of exchange and equivalence that are never quite as homogenous as they are made out to be.

No wonder, then, that as Johnson shows both Canudos and the “Quebra-Quilos” riots of a couple of decades earlier had habit–or the tension between the heterogeneity of habitual repetition on the one hand and the homogeneity of standardization and chronometric regulation on the other–at the center of their respective conflicts. Quebra-Quilos (“Smash the Kilos”) “often involved the destruction of the scales used to weigh goods in the marketplace” and even “included the deliberate destruction of house numbers” (86). Canudos likewise expressed a resistance to “new processes of governmentalization” (94) from taxation to civil marriage that were perceived as an encroachment on what Peter Linebaugh (in The London Hanged) discusses in terms of the criminalization of customary rights and the imposition of the wage relation. In other words, not only does da Cunha’s “prose of counter-insurgency” function to eliminate the everyday in its account of Canudos: the struggle itself was at heart part of a massive effort to transform or transmute everyday rituals into the regularities of life under the modern state. Ultimately, Johnson claims, it is not that the settlement’s inhabitants were protesting their abandonment by the state (as some have suggested); theirs instead was a plea for autonomy.

In sum, Sentencing Canudos, in leveraging Subaltern Studies so as to go beyond the stale narratives of transculturation and/or deadening solidarity with the poor that have dominated Latin American cultural studies, begins to make visible the ordinariness that is at stake even in the most extraordinary events such as the destruction of Canudos, and even in the most canonical of texts such as da Cunha’s Os Sertões. From the ruins of the past (such as the remains of Conselheiro’s church, featured on the book’s front cover), it aims to produce not a new totality or a “noble unity” (168) but the possibility of new habits of reading and thinking at odds with the ordering devices of would-be hegemonic projects.

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.