On the Recommendation of Social Death. 

I am not sure John Beverley is “coming out of a tunnel” with his retirement, as he himself likes to think–at least it is not obvious in his “The Pittsburgh Model and Other Thoughts on the Field (Hispanism/Latinamericanism.”[1]  And I will try to tell you why.  In his second paragraph he enigmatically says: “We should be rightly suspicious of one who, leaving the field out of fatigue or irrelevance, proclaims grandly that the game is over, as if somehow the experience of his or her own life and career mapped onto the movement of history, even the minor movement of the histories of academic fields” (7).  The reader may be excused for not understanding much about that sentence until she comes to the final section of the essay entitled “The Option of Deconstruction” (14-16).  In that section it becomes retrospectively clear that he is perhaps, or most likely, referring to me, specifically on the basis of the English translation of Marranismo e inscripción, o el abandono de la conciencia desdichada (2016), which is entitled Against Abstraction.  Notes from and Ex-Latin Americanist and was published by University of Texas Press in 2020.   To be fair, I did not proclaim grandly that the movement of history mapped onto my own career, only that I no longer consider or will consider myself a Latin Americanist, to the extent that I have stopped doing work on that area of endeavor.  So I did not want to fool anyone or to continue to take advantage of fairly mechanic or routine academic structures whose own agony is perfectly mirrored in the proliferation of conferences, workshops, or publications on the vexed topic of the “future of” (say, Latin Americanism or Hispanism or deconstruction or cultural studies)–like the very one that prompted his paper. I no longer want to be a part of that kind of activity regarding Latin Americanism–not interested any more, even though I once was.   The reasons are primarily biographical, and to that extent not exciting for anyone but me.   It does not mean Latin America does not interest me–it does, but I have simply had it with North American academic reflection on it, or the literary and cultural kind of it.  It bores me.  I am sorry if this offends anyone, but nobody seemed to be particularly grateful when I was taking an active interest.   So “irrelevance” may actually be the more truthful word in Beverley’s otherwise false paragraph–if it refers to me.   I was irrelevant, like so many are, on the, from a certain perspective, properly democratic notion that there are more like me where I came from, and nobody’s work should have any particular priority whatsoever.  I would not be missed, and I had more pressing concerns awaiting me.  And some serious things to leave behind.

            But Beverley’s paragraph is somehow symptomatic to the very extent that, after announcing his recent retirement, he goes on to say that he is looking at the “mortality of Hispanism” (7): “Hispanism will last longer than my own life–this very volume we are contributing to is part of its continuous remaking–but not too much longer” (7); “In fifty years it will be dead on the tracks, each of the individual cars [this is a metaphor Beverley has been laboriously pursuing: Hispanism, or Hispanism/Latin Americanism, as a train with many cars] rusting and decayed, covered by graffitti” (8).  And then, in his next section, “From Lazarillo to Sandinismo: The Pittsburgh Model” (8-12), he elaborates a fairly grandiose and melancholic account of his passage through the field that ends with a reference to his “most recent book” on the “failure of Latin Americanism” (12).  So it would seem as if the first quoted passage from Beverley’s article rather refers to his own position, of which, then, “we should be rightly suspicious.”  He is the one who proclaims the historical failure of the field and prophesies its death, when I simply thought that I was stepping out of it for various reasons that are better left unspecified.   This is only reinforced when he entitles his third section “The Last Hispanist?  A Note on Américo Castro” (12-14).  If Castro, whose academic life in the United States took place from 1937 until more or less his death in 1972 (he retired from Princeton in 1953), is the last Hispanist, then the last Hispanist is already several generations removed in Beverley’s characterization.  Hispanism, then, died a long time ago.  No wonder some of us would want out. 

            So, from now, which is the date of Beverley’s own retirement, to the day when the mortality of Hispanism/Latin Americanism is consummated, “what do we do?,” Beverley asks (14).  He should rather ask “what are you people going to do?,” but let us take the “we” as an expression of sheer solidarity.   He responds: “One answer might be deconstruction” (14), which introduces his last section.  This is the section about which I will write in some detail, but not because I want to.  I actually do not, but people have been prompting me to do so for reasons that will become clear in a minute.  I have engaged polemically with Beverley before, certainly in Against Abstraction, and I have never enjoyed it much, I prefer friendship, but he likes to provoke.  Sometimes, however, his provocations are over the top, beyond the pale, as it seems to be the case here, and failing to respond to them might probably be, rather than a gesture of condescension to an old professor who may be hating his own predicament, a failure of responsibility. 

            I am one generation removed from that of Beverley.  Those of us whose PhD dates from around 1985 to around 1995 came into the so-called field, as we used to call it at the time, at a period of paradigmatic crisis in the production of knowledge, certainly in the Humanities.  The 1980s were the years when what Beverley calls “the philologically based historicism which is almost second-nature for many of us” (14) had hit a wall.  That was obvious to us, but of course it was less than obvious at the time to those formed in that paradigm, quickly becoming dated and less than attractive to the newer generation of students.  This is not the place to rehearse the historical moment properly, so let me just say that the political disorientation at the time of the rise of neoliberalism was strongly felt, and as old leftist as well as so-called New Left pieties were crumbling into dust, taking a lot of things with them, the irruption of theory in literature departments (deconstruction, yes, but also feminist theory, French or Italian much more than North American, Lacanian analysis, queer studies, and other aspects of European philosophy that were catalogued under the general term of poststructuralism) ended up producing disarray, conflict with the students, and naturally enough a great deal of rancor and resentment in the old philology-cum-historicist-leftism crowd of professors.   As to the latter, I do not think they ever emerged from their hole, or their tunnel–it is hard for me to think of more than one or two older professors who were successful in their aggiornamento, and most of them were left pissing up a rope, as the undoubtedly male-chauvinist expression goes.  Yes, academic routines sustained them.  But that does not erase the fact that most members of my generation were forced to come into their careers without the obvious benefit of masters of discourse in our own field–there were few, if any, we could look up to, and we had to turn our need for guidance elsewhere, which we did.   They never forgave us.  As we moved into professorial careers our attention became centered on protecting our own students from the older generation.  I will not mention names or retell old battles, but this was a fact, and a defining one of our academic lives.  That is, when we did not also have to protect ourselves.  I can say these things now, when they can no longer do anything to me (they have done enough).   The real problem, to my own personal dismay and that of many friends of mine (well, of some friends of mine, relatively few compared with the cohort we had to face), emerged later. Let me try to name it as economically as possible but without mincing words: the sheer difficulty and labor imposed on us by the new tasks brought about by theory prompted many in the newer generations, when theory had lost some of its novelty, to recoil.  They saw an abyss that would not serve them well.  What had been no more than a thin veneer of fashionable theoretical sophistication did not have the time to deepen its roots in the field, particularly not in Hispanic Studies for reasons that you know or should know as well as I do, but which I will not dwell upon.   And most people went back into the usual run-of-the-mill, age-old routines of literary or cultural interpretation, but now farcically as it were, and therefore they also became prey to a great deal of rancor and resentment, which ended up defining them as intellectuals.  Yes, some of them “applied” theory, meaning they quoted someone or other, and almost all of them were more than ready to claim some kind of ready-made position within the small range of options made available to them by the common opinion.  But far from them the pretension to do theory, to produce it: that was strongly discouraged, or their head might be chopped off.  I am sorry if this sounds harsh, but it is my own life I am talking about, and I am afraid I have the right to speak clearly about it.  At the end of the day, after all, all of them are ostensibly happy in their positions and enjoying whatever power has accrued to them as gatekeepers of intellectual inanity (for the most part).[2] 

            I do not need to argue my friends’ or indeed my own intellectual superiority.  That is indeed not what I am doing.  Superiority is not the issue here.  I am simply pointing out the fact that an engagement with theory in the field, as an academic option, and as an option for life, was very bad news for a host of colleagues–first in the older generation and, as time passed, also in the newer ones.  The consequences were no good: paths were blocked, discourses were silenced, positions were withheld, and conflict, almost always unilaterally created, happened endemically, all of it imbued with a brutality, or a vulgarity, or a lack of elegance unworthy of university discourse as it should be or should have been.  And I am afraid that is the problem that, once again, emerges disturbingly, that is, disturbingly for those of us who wish things had been otherwise, in John Beverley’s last section of his essay on the so-called “Pittsburgh model” (provided it ever existed).  He says: 

(Mabel Moraña, if you are reading this, I am admitting you were right about Moreiras and I was wrong back in the days we debated this.) Moreiras seems to be seeking in his engagement with Latin American literary and cultural thinking, or beyond it, a “supplement” that could summon up an originary and radical experience, something like Heidegger’s Dasein . . . He describes his kind of thinking as marrano, that is, in terms of sixteenth-century Spain, neither Jewish/Muslim nor Christian.  In between.  Abject.  He would like to claim by this that his location of enunciation is neither Hispanist or Latin Americanist, neither postcolonial or European, to the extent each of these categories involves a philologically constructed idea of identity, a “metaphysics of presence.”  (14-15)

            Leaving aside the woeful mischaracterization of what a “metaphysics of presence” might be, the critical significance of this paragraph seems to be, beyond denouncing a certain Eurocentrism, as they call it, to set the stage for a denunciation of what I have been calling “infrapolitics” and “posthegemony,” together with deconstruction, as “a dead end” (15): “At best, it can only finally point to itself, with the self-satisfaction of a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat.  The first time we see this leaves us astonished; the fourth or fifth time it has become familiarized” (15).  I can take criticism, but I prefer it when that criticism actually engages with what I say, instead of opting for the long-familiar figure of its preemptive consignment to death.  I may not be completely alive, but I like to think of myself as a kind of “muerto vivo,” to quote a favorite song of mine.   Beverley does not do me the honor of according me that status: instead, he sighs for a time, the time of Moraña’s whispering into his ear, in the mid-1990s, when I could have been accorded proper symbolic death, social death, which they failed to give me (but, alas, not completely).  Or perhaps he does, in a roundabout way: he calls me a muerto vivo, because now I do infrapolitics and posthegemony, understood as “blanqueamiento” (15) in some queer racialization of the work I am trying to do, which also hints at sepulchers.  (I will come back to this issue in a Postscript to this piece, to be posted above.) My work is a dead end, Beverley thinks, and should be buried.  But I disagree, and not because I think highly of it, god knows it is never good enough, only because I know that there are so many more things to think and say ahead of me.  There is so much to study.

            It is not deconstruction or posthegemony that Beverley recommends for the future: rather, he recommends “Gramsci and the conditions of hegemony” (15).  If my hat only produces all-too-familiar rabbits, I wonder what could be said about Beverley’s own hat.  Gramsci, he says, embodies a “‘worldly’ criticism,” that is, a criticism that is “historically and politically inflected” (15), whereas deconstruction “is at the same time aporetic (undecided) and apocalyptic” (15).   Professor Beverley has still not understood what deconstruction, or the general field of theory, is about.  After so many years.  He prefers to bypass it entirely, fully into character, and go back to the old truisms of humanist piety as a recommendation for the future.  But “deconstruction” is only code: I, for one, while freely admitting that I have been influenced by deconstruction, which I simply take as an epoch and an inflection in Western metaphysics that I am grateful for, do not consider my work to be contained, or defined, within it.  Deconstruction exceeds me, which Beverley fails to realize.  And, whatever one thinks of the current relevance of the Gramscian theory of hegemony (I have written at length about it and do not wish to repeat myself), the point he makes is really not that hegemony is superior to posthegemony–although that too, obviously enough, without bothering to think about it.  The point Beverley is making, if I may cut to the chase, is that theory, or at least a theory that tries to think beyond the pieties of conventional leftism, even if from a left perspective, anything that is new or pretends to newness, infrapolitics, posthegemony, or the old horsebattle deconstruction, is dead or should be killed.  This is serious stuff, but the proof of it is that Beverley does not bother to engage with what is said–he only pronounces it dead.  As if that were enough.  Well, it has been, for the field in its dominant version, over the past forty years.  It is a sad future that Beverley wants to legate–dead set against theory and intellectual newness, even against the attempt at them.  He should revise his own position in the field of academic hegemony–he might run into some surprises when he does it with clear eyes.  Until he does, though, we shall have to say he is still not out of his tunnel, although we would like for him to emerge into the light. 

            In the meantime, we should recommend the newer generation of students, as they themselves wait for their long-announced deaths and try to make the most of it, or at least those who do, a different kind of look at their own futures, or at the future of their work.   Or there won’t be any. 


[1] In Revista Hispánica Moderna 74.1 (2021): 7-16.

[2] I do not have any problem with people doing whatever they want, whether it seems inane to me or not.  The social sciences departments that surround me are full of people doing things I consider inane, and I certainly let them be.  I only ask them to reciprocate.  My problem is when those people decide to foreclose the possibility of anything else, and take active measures for it. 

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