"Santiago Colás’s book is one of the most richly nuanced contributions to the ‘postmodernism in Latin America’ debate yet to appear."—Neil Larsen, Northeastern University
Postmodernity in Latin America: The Argentine Paradigmby Santiago Colás
Postmodernity in Latin America contests the prevailing understanding of the relationship between postmodernity and Latin America by focusing on recent developments in Latin American, and particularly Argentine, political and literary culture. While European and North American theorists of postmodernity generally view Latin American fiction without regard for its political and cultural context, Latin Americanists often either uncritically apply the concept of postmodernity to Latin American literature and society or reject it in an equally uncritical fashion. The result has been both a limited understanding of the literature and an impoverished notion of postmodernity. Santiago Colás challenges both of these approaches and corrects their consequent distortions by locating Argentine postmodernity in the cultural dynamics of resistance as it operates within and against local expressions of late capitalism.
Focusing on literature, Colás uses Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch to characterize modernity for Latin America as a whole, Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spider Woman to identify the transition to a more localized postmodernity, and Ricardo Piglia’s Artificial Respiration to exemplify the cultural coordinates of postmodernity in Argentina. Informed by the cycle of political transformation beginning with the Cuban Revolution, including its effects on Peronism, to the period of dictatorship, and finally to redemocratization, Colás’s examination of this literary progression leads to the reconstruction of three significant moments in the history of Argentina. His analysis provokes both a revised understanding of that history and the recognition that multiple meanings of postmodernity must be understood in ways that incorporate the complexity of regional differences.
Offering a new voice in the debate over postmodernity, one that challenges that debate’s leading thinkers, Postmodernity in Latin America will be of particular interest to students of Latin American literature and to scholars in all disciplines concerned with theories of the postmodern.
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Postmodernity in Latin America
The Argentine Paradigm
By Santiago Colás
Duke University PressCopyright © 1994 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
Linda Hutcheon, over the course of several books, has established herself as a major authority on postmodernism, particularly in literature. In A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction, first published in 1987, she added a literary historical dimension to her own previous work on parody and self-reflexivity. At the same time, she consolidated and organized the notoriously confusing and inflated body of scholarship on literary postmodernism. Her book has become a virtual textbook on postmodernism. In more recent works, Hutcheon has increased the range of the model introduced in A Poetics of Postmodernism to include Canadian fiction and other international cultural forms, such as dance, photography, film, and performance art. Thus, by studying Hutcheon's representative and respected work, we may get an appropriate look at the first kind of misinterpretation, the one that extracts Latin American fiction from its local social and cultural context.
Hutcheon cites, at one time or another, such disparate Latin American novels as Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude; Manuel Puig's Kiss of the Spider Woman; Mario Vargas Llosa's The War of the End of the World; Carlos Fuentes's The Old Gringo, Terra Nostra, and The Death of Artemio Cruz; Augusto Roa Bastos's I, the Supreme; Alejo Carpentier's Explosion in the Cathedral; and Julio Cortázar's Hopscotch and A Manual for Manual. All these texts serve as examples of the primary mode of postmodern fiction, what Hutcheon terms "postmodern historiographic metafiction." Hutcheon includes within this category texts that use techniques such as the manipulation of narrative perspective, self-consciousness, and the incorporation of actual historical figures and texts to challenge the illusion of unified and coherent subjective identity and the distinction between art, specifically fiction, and life, specifically history or the past (105ff.). Hutcheon considers these two cultural institutions to be the moorings of what she calls "bourgeois liberal humanist" society (e.g., 179ff.). In that case, she argues, postmodernism, through its primary fictional mode "historiographic metafiction," targets that society from within, without pretending to escape from it or to inaugurate a new society. And postwar Latin America is one, if not the primary, source of this kind of fiction.
Hutcheon's claim that Latin American literature best embodies literary postmodernism depends upon several hidden presuppositions. First, she presupposes a definition—however implicit—of literary postmodernism. Second, she presupposes an identification of the constitutive features of the Latin American text or texts in question. Then, she must align the features defining postmodernism with the features identified in the Latin American text. She may explicitly do no more than substantiate her theory by referring to cultural examples such as Latin American texts. But she also implicitly pretends to explain the emergence and specific character of Latin American texts by reference to an international literary trend. The relationship thus works both ways.
The problem with this is not that postwar Latin America has not produced a body of fiction that concerns itself with history and that seeks to write Latin American history a different way and from a different perspective. On the contrary, one might argue that in the wake of the boom texts (written mostly during the 1960s) that Hutcheon primarily deals with, two new strains of narrative have emerged that seem to fit her stylistic description even more closely. Isabel Allende's House of the Spirits (1982), Antonio Skármeta's I dreamt the Snow Was Burning (1984) and The Insurrection (1982), Carlos Martinez Moreno's Inferno (1983), Luisa Valenzuela's Lizard's Tail (1983) and Other Weapons (1982), and Marta Traba's Conversation alsur (1981) and En cualquier lugar (1984)—along with the novels discussed in chapters 6 and 7—combine stylistic complexity with a concern for representing and intervening in recent history. During the same period, testimonios (testimonial narratives) have emerged from all over Latin America, such as Alicia Partnoy's Little School (1986); Hernan Valdés Tejas Verdes (1974); Rigoberta Menchu's I, Rigoberta Menchú (1982); Domitila Chungara's Let me Speak (1978); and Elena Poniatowska's Until We Meet Again (1969), Massacre in Mexico (1971), and Nada, Nadie (1988). These testimonios certainly question the processes by which historical facts are constructed, passed off as given, and pressed into the service of a particular class, race, gender, or institution. Thus, it's not that Hutcheon invents a trend in Latin American fiction nor even that she doesn't read Latin American texts carefully.
The problem is that Hutcheon doesn't complete her reading. And if the texts are only partially read to begin with, the theoretical category built of such partial readings will be of accordingly limited use. At the same time, therefore, her implicit account of the text's appearance and characteristics will be limited. In this case, Hutcheon's partial readings of these texts involves the exclusion of the social and political conditions out of which they emerged. This exclusion derives from certain limitations established by Hutcheon on her own theory. And it results in her misappropriation of Latin American fiction for her transnational canon of postmodern historiographic metafiction.
Hutcheon introduces her study as "neither a defense nor yet another denigration of the cultural enterprise [called] postmodernism. You will not find here any claims of radical revolutionary change or any apocalyptic wailing about the decline of the west under late capitalism. Rather than eulogize or ridicule, what I have tried to do is study a current cultural phenomenon" (ix). Ostensibly seeking to inject some calm reason into a discussion that has grown overly polemical, Hutcheon in fact excludes the concrete, historical, and political dimension of postmodern culture. She rhetorically equates "defenses," "denigrations," "eulogizing," and "ridiculing"—all things we wouldn't want to be doing in a scholarly discussion—with "claims of revolutionary change" or "wailing about the decline of the west under late capitalism." In so doing, Hutcheon bans any discussion of the concrete political consequences or affiliations of postmodern culture. We must not speak of revolution or capitalism because those things require a polemical rhetoric alien to the rational study to be undertaken here. By explicitly (and appealingly) sidestepping these caricatured (and unappealing) positions, Hutcheon also manages to repress that dimension—the concretely social and political—or postmodernism upon which such interpretations focus. If every interpretation rewrites its object of study in a different way, then Hutcheon is here writing a cultural postmodernism at the expense of a social, historical, and political postmodernism.
Aside from matters of personal preference, this exclusion severely limits Hutcheon's capacity to explain the emergence and specific function of the surface features she describes. Hutcheon cannot answer—or even ask, really—why postmodernism came when it did, nor why it took the form it did, nor even, finally, what function these various stylistic features serve. For example, Hutcheon rejects the explanation that the "postmodern 'return to history'" results from the U.S. bicentennial in 1976, rightly observing that this cannot explain a similar return in Canada, Latin America, and Europe (93). But in its place, she offers a similarly narrow explanation: "The members of the '60s generation ... tend to think more historically than their predecessors," giving rise to a "desire" for "reading as 'an act of community'" (93). This only begs the question of causes. What gave rise to the "'60s generation" tendency to think more historically? Hutcheon's exclusion of social and historical causes and effects, such as revolution or capitalism, makes it impossible for her to ask, let alone answer, such a question.
At the same time, this example reveals a second problem with Hutcheon's model: its unconscious universalizing impulses. Hutcheon feels it is wrong to attribute an international return to history to one nation's bicentennial. But she fails to address the problems involved in assuming the existence of a uniform, international generation of the sixties and identifying it as the cause instead. She does not explain the emergence of any such "generation." But beyond this, Hutcheon also fails to ask whether, in spite of a certain admittedly internationalist impulse in various cultural movements in the sixties, this generation might not have different concerns and aims in different parts of the world. And also whether these differences were dictated by the many different institutional faces presented by Hutcheon's other homogeneous universal: "bourgeois liberal humanism." This tendency is striking partly because Hutcheon explicitly seeks to counter such "totalizing" impulses in other theories of postmodernism. But also, her very definition of postmodernism seems to preclude the kind of abstracting moves she makes: "Perhaps the most basic formulation possible of the paradox of the postmodern" is that "it is more a questioning of commonly accepted values of our [whose?] culture (closure, teleology, and subjectivity), a questioning that is totally dependent on that which it interrogates" (42; emphasis added). That definition should therefore be more self-consciously applied to her own work. For only by raising her theoretical gaze above the confusing crowd of local circumstances, cultural traditions, political projects, and historical tendencies can she align a whole series of varied international cultural artifacts and determine that they are the expression of a single postmodernism engaged in "using and abusing," "installing and subverting," "contesting, but not denying" bourgeois liberal humanism.
Hutcheon thus excludes from her model the pressure that social and historical forces exert on culture. She also excludes the differentiating power that specific, local social and cultural elements might exert on dominant forces like "bourgeois liberal humanism." In the case of Latin American fiction, these exclusions lead Hutcheon to omit precisely those features of these texts that would make them resistant to inclusion in her canon of postmodernism, namely, the concrete ways these texts may reproduce or be resistant to the dominant economic, political, and cultural institutions in both the First World and the various regions and nations of Latin America. So, for example, no mention is made of possible relationships between boom fiction and the Cuban revolution or the ideology of modernization, both potent social forces for the Latin American "'60s generation." Nor, as I noted above, does Hutcheon seem to be aware of a series of texts (many untranslated) that emerged from revolutionary struggles in Central America, or from the experience of fearsome state terrorism under military rule in the Southern Cone. The reasons for these inadequate interpretations lay in the blind spots within Hutcheon's own theoretical model.
Fredric Jameson conceived of his model of postmodernism as "radically different" from what he called "stylistic" models—of which Hutcheon's might be considered the culmination—for which "postmodernism" was a style an artist might choose or reject. Instead, Jameson attempted to produce a concept of postmodernism as a "cultural dominant": a dominating cultural medium within which all cultural production takes place and to which it must all, in one way or another, respond. Moreover, Jameson sought to explain the emergence of that cultural dominant in terms of Ernest Mandel's account—in Late Capitalism—of postwar mutations in the structure of capitalism. Hence the title of Jameson's landmark essay on the topic, as well as his more recently published collection of essays and new reflections: Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Jameson interwove his cultural analyses with political and economic accounts precisely to historicize the cultural phenomena of postmodernism: to address the question of why postmodernism came when it did, and of what it might mean given the economic and political circumstances in which it emerged.
Some have felt that Jameson overstated the link between postmodern culture and the social forms of late capitalism. But he undoubtedly succeeded in shifting the terms of the debate so that critics and theorists were forced to consider postmodernism within a broader field of forces than those usually associated with changes in literary or artistic practice. Of course, my own critique of Hutcheon, the possibility of seeing a gap in her theory, depends heavily on Jameson's rearranging of the debate. The importance of his model notwithstanding, the question for us to keep in mind is how Jameson—who presumably will attend to the social and historical dimensions of a text—constructs the specificity of Latin American culture within his broad version of postmodernism.
In fact, we come across the Third World often in Jameson's theory of postmodernism. For example, it functions centrally as the space whose disappearance manifests the emergence of late capitalism. "This purer capitalism of our time," Jameson writes of late capitalism, "thus eliminates the enclaves of precapitalist organization it had hitherto tolerated and exploited in a tributary way. One is tempted to speak in this connection of a new and historically original penetration and colonization of Nature and the Unconscious: that is the destruction of precapitalist third world agriculture by the Green Revolution, and the rise of the media and the advertising industry" (36). Compare this to an earlier formulation: "Late capitalism can therefore be described as the moment in which the last vestiges of Nature which survived on into classical capitalism are at length eliminated: namely the third world and the unconscious." Elsewhere, it is "above all" a change in the status of the Third World with respect to capital that distinguishes late capitalism (ix). The latter finally saturates the previously colonized, but until now untransformed, "agricultural" or "precapitalist" spaces of the Third World, including Latin America.
It may be obvious that this seemingly final victory of capitalism over all resistant spaces is lamentable to Jameson. But consider the specifics of his lament. Jameson catalogues, among the baleful features of postmodernism, a "weakening of historicity" (6), defining historicity as "a perception of the present as history" (284). In modernism, historicity came from "some residual zones of 'nature' or 'being,' of the old, the older, the archaic" (ix). These zones "[threw] up the concept and the image of an older mode of agricultural production" (366) and permitted "the lived coexistence between several modes of production, the existential experience, within a single life and a single individual, of multiple 'alternate' historical worlds." Latin Americanists might think of Alejo Carpentier's Lost Steps, whose protagonist in traveling from a northern metropolis to the heart of the Orinoco, passes backward—by his own accounts—in time through several historical periods. In postmodernism, late capitalism obliterates the nature of the Third World and paralyzes our sense of historicity. Since we cannot recall the past out of which our present was shaped, we lose our sense of the present as changeable. We therefore weaken our capacity to formulate projects for new futures. We are left immobile as political subjects. Jameson therefore advocates a concept of postmodernism, as well as a postmodern cultural practice of cognitive mapping, that will, in the first words of the book, "think the present historically in an age that has forgotten how to think historically in the first place" (ix). The urgency of this call is underscored when we go back to his best-known work, The Political Unconscious. There, we find a similar version—"Always historicize!"—characterized not only as the moral of that book but also as the "'transhistorical' imperative of all dialectical thought." How though, given the bleak picture of a uniformly modernized—"imploded"—capitalist landscape, can we regain the leverage necessary to think historically?
Now we come across the Third World again. For the "radical difference" of the texts of the Third World have a "tendency to remind us of outmoded stages of our own first world cultural development." This reminder "challenges our imprisonment in the present of postmodernism and calls for a reinvention of the radical difference of our own cultural past." Jameson locates these texts somehow outside the ostensibly total range of late capitalism and postmodernism, characterizing them as "forms of oppositional culture: those of marginal groups, those of radically distinct residual or emergent cultural languages ... resistant and heterogeneous forces which [postmodernism] has a vocation to subdue and incorporate" (159). These resistant, but not postmodern, forms of culture bear a family resemblance to, but are finally contrasted with, Jameson's favored First-World cultural forms—the work of sculptor Hans Haacke, for example—which are both resistant and postmodern. The Third World returns from its annihilation, paradoxically, to serve as the cultural source for historical thinking, a source to be mined by us in the First World in order to regain our own debilitated historicizing faculties. We might reasonably ask, in light of this central and complex, but finally vexing and paradoxical role assigned the Third World, what in Jameson's theory permits such an expropriation of Third-World culture?
Excerpted from Postmodernity in Latin America by Santiago Colás. Copyright © 1994 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Meet the Author
Santiago Colás is Assistant Professor of Spanish and Latin American literature at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
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