Are things like this for everyone? Will people tell?

Looking for something else I encountered the text that follows, “Mentoring Past the Ruins,” which I published in 2008 in the LASA Forum.  I am both stunned and embarrassed.  I am stunned because, in 2008, I was depressed and in a very bad place, but I can barely find any traces of it in the writing.  Which means I repressed my anger at the time, which probably means I am or was at the time way too nice, that is, also a little stupid.  And I am embarrassed because I cannot relate to what I wrote then, which probably means it was all a lie, even if it was a lie I could not myself understand as a lie.  So that being stunned and embarrassed can be reversed: I am stunned at the lie, embarrassed at my inability to tell the truth at the time. 

Still, those are only my subjective positions, and there are perhaps a few marginal truths that still emerge in the text.  Not that I care.  Read it and see what you think.  For me all of it has darkened, retrospectively, from our present. I do not see it happening today, or in the future. So it must not have happened in the past. It was all a lie.

I spent my graduate school years trying to read everything, as much as I could, trying to study, preparing myself for a career that could justify having left my country for professional reasons.  Having made the choices I had made.  My professors and my institution treated me very well, and I thought everything was on track.  I spent several years, as an assistant professor, learning a few unpleasant things about my colleagues, about fights and conflicts I wanted to have nothing to do with, about spite, and jealousy and envy as an endemic state of affairs; indeed, about persecution and harassment.  But I was lucky enough to be able to abandon that place, where I was able to have marginal fun only thanks to some of the students in the place. 

My new institution gave me hope, and confidence that things were not so bad after all, that it was worthwhile to work not just at the institution, but for the institution.  And I did, and I gave it everything I had, at some personal cost but what the hell.  And it was fun, although it was also hard, and it lasted for years, and there were compensations.  We had conversations, we had money to organize things, we could invite people over, and we could visit with the others who were inviting people over. There were new thoughts being produced. There was friendship. There was generosity. There was a sense of future. It was the university, and it was our place, and we tried to make the most of it, indeed, we made the most of it, or was it just I that made the most of it. It was glorious. Until spite, jealousy, envy caught up with me again, and I left, and leaving—it was home, and I left–led me to a spiral of despair and dark thoughts which my new institution did nothing to relieve.   Yes, I am sure you are thinking “how about you?  Were you a saint?  Were you not bad to others?”  I have no sympathy for saints, but I can tell you I never did anybody any harm, that was not what I wanted, or that was what I did not want, what I had always wanted to avoid.  In other words, it wasn’t me, whatever you think. 

But now, as far as the professional world goes, I find myself not actually caring, living a certain manner of disembodied life, going through motions without any real engagement.  I teach my classes, and do what I am told, which is not much, I am asked and expected to do almost nothing else, other than publishing, maybe, or that is the rhetoric (my suspicion is, nobody cares, it is all fake).

Looking at my senior colleagues, it is not out of the question that I still have about fifteen years of active professional life ahead of me. So it is not that I am thinking of retirement.  So, if we leave retirement aside, is it normal to expect nothing at all from my professional field, literally to have no expectations or, as Nietzsche would perhaps put it, to expect nothing rather than not to expect?  Is that the way other people live their lives at the university nowadays?   Is that the way people live their working lives in general, for the most part?

Obviously my life is by now not as dependent on my labor, that is, on the institution, as it was during my years at Duke.  I have learned to protect myself.  But I do not think I could have survived as a relatively sane person had I not had the pleasure of the Duke years when the Duke years were good, that is, until they became bad. 

So I am very curious about others.  I suppose this is of general concern.  Or am I totally wrong?  It would not be a surprise, as I have been totally wrong in the past, like when I wrote the text that follows, which I can now understand as a total fantasy. 

But why was it a fantasy?  That is a harder question. 

Mentoring Past the Ruins by ALBERTO MOREIRAS | University of Aberdeen/State University of New York at Buffalo. 

In the humanities proper a disciplinary crisis opened in the wake of geopolitical changes that might yet make the old area-studies divisions obsolete. It has been happening, but it is not over yet. What needs to be done? U.S. Latin American Studies within the old configuration was a multidisciplinary space whose intersection was perhaps not very deep, but had to do with a tenuous Latin Americanist cultural love. As a literary scholar concerned with the novelistic boom in the 1970s, for instance, one spent most of her or his time reading up on all the novels from the relevant authors and then following up on the criticism that came conveniently summarized in the Latin American Studies Handbook or in the MLA bibliography for Spanish. Everybody understood, besides, that they were supposed to know something about history and politics as well, in order to contextualize their own work, but also for reasons of honest concern for the region and its people. If one read a sociology book in that context, it was either because one wanted to know more about a specific society or because the sociology was thought to be useful to the task of literary interpretation, but not necessarily because one made it a professional concern to open up to a sociology/literature hybrid. One’s discipline was still paramount, and one could thus know what one knew. The 1980s threw a wrench into that comfortable arrangement, and forced many scholars into some kind of symbolic (that is, socially imposed) obligation to read up in other fields beyond Latin American Studies if still for the sake of disciplinary advancement. These are the years of the rise in literature departments of so-called theory, which developed into a generational commitment for many of us who went to graduate school then. Literary theory evolved rapidly into a diffuse poststructuralist field and loaded us with the burden of having to study anthropology, linguistics, philosophy, psychoanalysis, political economy, history of religion, feminism, queer studies, ethnic studies, and everything else as well. Being a literary Latin Americanist became a demanding task—the French program people could largely stay within their own library, since a lot of the texts we were all reading could be considered French literature after all, but we in Spanish had to know our archive or archives, including what was to be known of the indigenous, and the French archive, and the U.S. archive, and the German archive, and everything else as well. How did this come about? No matter how much work we did, our colleagues from other departments still thought our knowledge was inferior to theirs. The game had expanded for us, but not so much for them. Or so they thought. The 1990s are perhaps the time when all of this came together briefly under the configuration of Latin American cultural studies. The name seemed inadequate, as it had already been appropriated by a different set of characters in Britain and later for American studies. What evolved as Latin American cultural studies was not really similar, or only vaguely, to the English-based endeavors. Most of the Latin Americanists who became engaged with the new denomination had been trained as literary scholars, with significant exceptions. What was primarily at stake, I think, was the need to open up the field of engagement, to abandon the literary text as the main horizon of our work, and to include text in general, that is, the testimonial text, the political text, the visual, the postdictatorial, the indigenous, the urban, and so forth. It was an opening to culture as the real horizon of humanities work in a situation in which literature was no longer considered the queen of the humanities; in a situation in which, to all effects, the queen of the humanities was now the critical text, the text of critique. We formed students. At Duke we organized many working groups that did the radical interdisciplinary work (but it was an interdisciplinarity mostly done by us from the Spanish and Literature programs, with an important couple of historians, and the occasional anthropology visitor) our normal seminars still could not do. Graduate student mentoring became complex, as one could no longer point to the past and say “hey, it is clear, do as they did.” What needed to be done was open and in the future, and it was collective, and a given student had as much to say about it as anybody else, and everybody had opinions, but nobody really knew what it was. But it was good because those students found jobs, and there was in the field a certain tolerance to hire people who were doing something new, and we had many good discussions at LASA, and at MMLA, and at our own many conferences, and there was excitement and joy and a certain solidarity across different ideological positionings and across the mostly minor, some of us thought, political differences, and people said “perhaps Latin American Studies now, at least in literature or in post-literature, has something to say or will have something to say that people in other fields (other than literature) might have to learn from.” And it was true, because good books were published and good dissertations were written, and conversations had, and there was no shame. But it did not last. A few years before Néstor García Canclini memorably said in one of the Latin American cultural studies LASA panels in September 2001 that the Latin American cultural studies alliance had ended (“Esto es el fin de la alianza,” and he was angry!), destructive fights had started a labor of systematic demolition of the future of the field of engagement. Was it Néstor or

7 lasaforum SPRING 2008 : VOLUME XXXIX : ISSUE 2 8 MOREIRAS continued…

was it rather John Beverley who said that “cultural studies proper” was now very different from the postcolonial studies tendency, and those two very different from the proper subaltern studies tendency, and the latter very different from deconstructionist cultural critique—none of which had anything to do with Marxist cultural studies? The field that had sustained some promising Latin Americanist intellectual ambitions in the past decade had shattered. Now we had the priests and preachers of the different tendencies, but the churches and temples were about to become mostly empty out of fear and disenchantment. Many academic bats came over (and some buzzards, junior and older), and took over, and closed the doors, and perhaps now we are all sorry. Or not. Things pass. Now you ask, how do you form junior scholars in Latin American studies? And the question for me is, how do you form them among the ruins of Latin American cultural studies as they were then, before the “end of the alliance?” I suppose we must be glad that we succeeded for a decade or so, and I suppose those very junior scholars (not the bats, who will remain silent) will come up with an appropriate generational answer to your question. No, we must not blame it all on the internal fights. A bigger fight hit the ground just a few miles from the LASA convention site only a couple of days after we all left, and that bigger fight has literally altered the conditions for intellectual labor today in ways that we are only beginning to realize. The old configurations of knowledge are not enough now. The Latin American cultural studies paradigm from the 1990s, as it was developed in the United States, was bound to run out of steam. The point is, in the wake of everything, “¿y ahora qué?” You will remember, since you are Latin Americanists, the end of Jorge Luis Borges’s “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” The narrator, who is waiting until “mere Spanish” vanishes, together with English and French, from the face of the earth, spends his quiet days in Adrogué engaged in “an indecisive translation” of baroque epitaphs on gravestones, but we don’t have to be quite so melancholy. As to myself, in a new context now, I am doing my best to develop with my new colleagues at the Aberdeen Centre for Modern Thought and particularly with my old Duke Latin Americanist colleague Danny James an institutional research structure that I understand as a resolute translation of the problems the Latin American cultural studies paradigm could not accommodate within its parameters. I consider dealing with these problems the necessary prolegomenon to any conceivable attempt (conceivable by me) to reinvent a theoretical task in the Latin Americanist humanities for the next generation—of which, given my second birth, I am very much a part. We include them all under a structure that we are calling “Political Thought,” and that specifies seven research subfields. I can only enumerate them for you, for reasons of space: New Paths in Political Philosophy, Comparative Imperial Histories, the Converso-Marrano Tradition and Spinoza’s Political Thought, Populisms and Constraint, Republicanism, Psychoanalysis and the Common, and Hispanic Wars. If there are any junior scholars out there who want to come to Aberdeen and do that, they will be more than welcome! They only have to write to me. ■

2 thoughts on “Are things like this for everyone? Will people tell?

  1. I don’t think one can go on assuming, on the individual level, that what one goes through in the University is an accident, a matter of bad versus good universities, of nice versus evil academics, etcetera. The University is the Human; hence it is White, hence it is anti-black. It is structurally violent, and there is no way to redeem it. How one relates to the University at present likely applies to all work today that demands “knowledge”. What would it mean to burn this ship from the inside out? Moten and Harney write: “We are against what they have done and are still doing to us; and we have something to say about the new society to be built; and we share in that which they have sought to discredit. Therefore, you and I and the university have to disappear.” Too bad for “the university without condition” and all of that. Btw, did Pessoa not work as… an accountant?

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    1. Thanks, Gabriela. On the issue of specific institutions vs the institution as such i agree with you that the Derridean “double register,” which was for me a point of reference for years, is losing its appeal because it no longer seems to work. My personal experience is mixed, as i mentioned, but the mix may have been wishful thinking from the get-go, as i also mentioned. And yes, that is one powerful reason why i appreciate Moten and Harney’s notion of study versus any notion of critique, which i increasingly think of as a waste of time.

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