Theorein latinoamericánico (Part 2)

I’m going to begin here with an admission: I frequently have no fucking idea what the hell is happening. Professionally speaking, such an admission is a huge breach of decorum, or at least sanity. As a serious scholar publishing in serious scholarly journals (not, egads, blogs), one must always have a fucking idea and never utter the word “fuck.” Rather than saying “fuck” or “fucking,” or just fucking (something so seldom accomplished, or accomplished well, by serious scholars), one must sublimate said impulse into an attitude of supreme mastery over the matter at-hand, and yes I just uttered “master” and “hand” in the same sentence. On the other hand (!!), having no fucking idea has proven immensely valuable to me, since I have never felt tied to any particular school of thought, or trend, or guru, or group. I feel free to follow any thread-of-thought with which I feel a particular affinity, rather than sensing much in the way of social pressure to think this a-way or think that a-way. So well have I pursued random threads without so much of an inkling as to why other people didn’t do so, that I can confidently say that I earned tenure by not having a fucking clue. Serious scholars may not like or appreciate that, but then again, like I said, I don’t give a fuck, or rather, I have just given you 9 fucks (now 10) in this paragraph. I feel like I’ve just finished the decathlon. Give me a gold fucking star.  11.

I believe Alberto Moreiras would call my admission marranismo, and he would be correct if he ever did say such a thing. The feeling that one has one’s foot in one world and one’s head in another, and a general sense that perhaps the Inquisition will eventually come around and compel you to confess as to whether you’re really a foot or a head. (The Inquisition is all feet, and “Off with the head!”) But in all seriousness, if there is good reason to be a serious scholar, and not an imaginary marrano even when one would like to imagine one is, it is this: the work we do is serious business, insofar as it demarcates the space between people, things, times and places as intelligible, legible. I may want to think myself a marrano or a serious theorist or the Big Lebowski, but as a matter of scholarship it doesn’t matter what the dude thinks of himself since the work is all about the space in-between. I thank Silviano Santiago for that observation, and I thank Vilém Flusser for this one: “I” and “you” do not exist except as abstractions of “we.”

Just today an article by Alberto appeared in the online journal Frontera D, “¿Puedo madrugarme a un narco? Posiciones críticas en la Asociación de Estudios Latinoamericanos.” The article is a journalistic account of the recent Latin American Studies Association (LASA) conference, which occurred in San Francisco in May 2012, although Alberto uses this occasion to muse on the state of Latin American cultural studies. If you’ve never been a LASA, Alberto has just provided you about as good a description of it as can be given. Of the thousands of scholars that descend on the event and wait interminable hours in line for a Starbuck’s coffee or a hotel beer, the official program states clearly that the majority of them are economists or urban planners or sociologists, many of whom use the occasion to devise novel ways to have Latin Americans buy more multinational Starbuck’s coffee or stay in multinational hotel chains or acquiesce to whatever neoliberal fantasy of globalization is en vogue at the moment. And for the life of me, I never see or meet or hear these people at LASA.

More to the point, Alberto has provided an excellent account of movements in Latin American critical theory since 1990 as they have been shaped by LASA conferences over the years. This is the tale of the promise of subaltern studies ca. 1992, the hope for real and direct engagement between academic theorists and the emergent public spheres in Latin American countries, the schism of the Latin American Subaltern Studies Group into “decolonialists” (sic) and “postmodernists (sic)/deconstructionists (sick)” finalized in the infamous LASA of September 2001 in Washington DC. This schism has proven rather heated over the past decade, and probably has led to inter-departmental warfare, publication rejections, denials of tenure, non-hirings of graduate students, the typical symptoms of academic-political pathology, who knows. What is certain is that there has been no unified sense of direction in the field of Latin American theory ever since. There has been quite a bit of “decolonialism” (or what I would term Latin American Exceptionalism, as in “Ego latinoamericanum, ergo you don’t understand”), and some very sharp theory, albeit produced under a great deal of duress (perceived or otherwise). Meanwhile scholars of my generation and younger, I suspect, have been quietly coming around to new ways of thinking. But where is it all leading? Alas, I get ahead of myself.

Alberto’s primary purpose in his account is to discuss the recent 3-panel session at LASA San Francisco, “Polemicizing Subaltern Politics,” organized by Benjamin Arditi under the auspices of the Culture, Power, and Political Subjectivities section of the association. (Full disclosure: I am now treasurer of said section, and I too am quite impressed by this.) The session brought together many of the original players in the Latin American Subaltern Studies group (Moreiras, John Beverley, Mabel Moraña, etc.) and younger scholars no less important (e.g. Bruno Bosteels, Jon Beasley-Murray) in the hopes of closing old rifts and opening new fault lines.

Alberto’s account of what happened in last May’s session is detailed and accurate, although he quite explicitly stakes his own position in the matter. He writes:

De cualquier forma, cuando Arturo Escobar dice en el curso del diálogo en los paneles que la posición republicano-democrática es una cuestión de fe, ignora que no hay que creer en la ley moral kantiana para sostener que el principio de dominación rompe la ética. Si yo quiero vivir en libertad, sin dominación, entiendo que mi posibilidad de libertad está basada en la posibilidad de libertad del otro, de todo otro; al mismo tiempo que entiendo que la necesidad de oponerme a la dominación es también imperativa. Esto es lógica, no fe. Es una lógica que abre el espacio de lo político como lugar permanente de negociación de conflictos, en lugar de desplazar o borrar el conflicto en nombre de la ley, de la unidad social, de la seguridad de los ciudadanos, o del compromiso con las metas de la revolución. Es lógica posthegemónica, y en cuanto tal tiene ventajas prácticas en relación con el cierre comunitario (siempre dispuesto a negar el conflicto en pro de la supervivencia de la comunidad, que es prioritaria) y en relación con el estatismo populista (que privilegia no ver, no oír, no decir cada vez que ver, oír o decir pueden suponer una objeción al triunfo de los intereses de la coalición de gobierno).

I should say that I don’t believe Alberto is calling for the return of devout Kantianism in Latin America. He is, however, staking a claim for a radical republicanism (more in the vein of Machiavelli than Kant) in which citizens recognize (theorein) the mutual inclusivity of each other’s liberty, over and above any differences of need or belief they need to negotiate. This “logic” would resist biopolitics and its conjoined twin, thanatopolitics, (the twin that mandates the survival of the body politic over the survival of any one citizen) and resist populism (which mandates acquiescence to the “Voice of the People” which is really just the voice of Juan Perón, and post-mortem at that, disembodied on some reel-to-reel tape). Perhaps most provocatively, Alberto aligns this “logic” with the concept of “posthegemony” – the same concept so elegantly elaborated by his former student, Jon Beasley-Murray, who is not coincidentally the subject of Part 1 of this post. The new direction of Latin American theory, then, according to Alberto, is that which points toward a posthegemonic republic, beyond its reduction to cultural politics or identity politics or just plain culture.

Such a republic, to my (admittedly disturbed) mind (cf. the first paragraph), rests on a particular notion of citizenship, and there’s the rub. The posthegemonic republic requires posthegemonic citizens capable of theorizing their relation to every other member of the republic. The republican ideal, in other words, is the sense in which liberty does not exist until “I” can see my liberty as embodied in “you.” Damn it all to hell what Vilém Flusser says. Posthegemony, in the sense that Alberto provides in his (non-theoretical) article, is the space of the theorizing subject who constantly theorizes his/her position with respect to other theorizing subjects. Now, among the attendees of your average LASA conference, one can easily encounter theorizing subjects and begin to theorize one’s own theory of self as manifest in another subject theorizing, one can encounter a good many of them in fact, some quite excellent, others not so excellent, and it often feels liberatory to recognize one’s own recognition in another’s recognition. But at the risk of sounding flippant – and here I must assure you that I am being anything but flippant – most people in the world have no fucking idea of what the hell is happening (12). And I’m one of them.

I do not say this to criticize most people in the world. But it does go to say that Alberto has offered us a choice: Believe him when he says that posthegemony is the future, or don’t believe him. It’s the same choice offered by Beasley-Murray, by the way, and since I know both of them I can say with some confidence that neither Alberto nor Jon really cares which way you believe so long as you contemplate the choice. Nevertheless, I myself would choose to opt-out of the choice altogether, if what we are discussing here is the old game of subject-formation.

I say this by way of a great deal of indecidability on multiple levels. As Alberto pronounced in his paper during the LASA session, he wants a world in which “Everybody counts, or no one counts.” This is the slogan, I would say, of the theorizing subject, and when I am a theorizing subject, I heartily agree with it. But sometimes I’m a no-subject with no fucking clue, and this may prove profitable to powerful forces at play in our world (a world we now call “globe” or “globalized”). And when I say “I” please recall that I am also saying “you” and “we,” goo goo gajoob. In either event, in a world dominated by global flows of capital and information, my subjectivity is always accounted for and my lack of subjectivity is always accounted for. The fact that “I” can write a blog, for instance, is accounted for; the fact that I have to pay one way or another to have a “free” blog is accounted for; and the fact that no one will buy what I’m not selling is also accounted for. I attended the session at LASA ’12, and as I said out loud there, Alberto is correct when he says “Everybody counts or no one counts.” The problem, however, is that someone or something is always counting, such that we as theorists must ask “Who or what does the count?“. That is to say, the slogan Alberto provided tacitly endorses the world-building forces at play in a globe in which everything and everybody must be accounted for with respect to economic profitability, or the absence thereof (i.e. poverty).

In short, the CPP session at LASA San Francisco begged the question, “Whither subalternism in Latin America?” Perhaps the answer to that question is a return to the question of subject-position, the position of the subaltern. I do not agree with that response, but if this is the general trend in the field then we must address that response with a great deal of caution. This caution: As theorists we tend to theorize the world as we would like to see it (theorein); but we also make the world as-it-is legible to that world, and as such we open the possibility that the knowledge of the world we generate can be used to ends we’d prefer not to see materialize. Here’s a good example: Walter Mignolo appears to relish in the fact that the world is become “de-occidental,” apparently because he sees the rise of BRIC as the final, ultimate shot of decolonialism. Because non-European and non-North-American countries are powerful, decolonialism is finally working! Incredibly, he fails to see that multinational-corporate globalization is the definitive culmination of deoccidentalism – that’s why it’s truly “global.”  Hell, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger clearly saw the world becoming “deoccidentalized,” and so they went to China to meet Mao. At long last capitalism can free itself of the onus of having to be Occidental all the time!  Here’s an even better example: Global capitalism thrives by being posthegemonic. Like a parasite, global capitalism permits the nation-state to be as hegemonic as it would like, so long as the nation-state does not interfere with business; globalization is, in this way, Power freed from the onus of having to be hegemonic. To theorize posthegemony adds, in spite of itself, more knowledge to the network of relations by which global capitalism is allowed to be posthegemonic. And if it hasn’t discovered a way to do so yet, capitalism will surely find a way to account for this theorization.

I do have a full response to this predicament, but you will have to buy my book to find out. Or read another blog post (for free!) at some point in the future. Actually, I’ll give myself away somewhat right now. Our response, however posthegemonic or decolonial or whatever, must always be to theorize the space in-between, the space of collective interaction between humans and nonhumans, rather than to valorize any one individual “subject-position.” We must recognize (theorein) the collective ecology, fully cognizant of the fact that this will be accounted for by the global economy.

With this observation, I will close with two anecdotes about LASA:  First, I will admit that I attended the very session at LASA Washington DC in 2001 that Alberto so laments in his article. I did so as some body whom no one paid attention to, and I had no reason to draw anyone’s attention, since I had no fucking idea what the hell was happening there. I recall I ran into my dear maestro, Julio Ramos, before the show, and we ate hamburgers rather joyfully and Julio introduced me to John Beverley at the next table over. Beyond that, I had no idea of the stakes at play that day, but I sure as hell learned over the next decade. The second anecdote is more meaningful perhaps. At LASA ’12, Benjamin Arditi closed the session by refusing to state what his own opinion or stake was in the whole discussion he had just moderated. Bully for Benjamin! You gotta admire a cat who clearly states he won’t say shit, and then proceeds precisely not to say shit. At that moment of non-annunciation, I happened to be sitting next to Gareth Williams, who correctly surmised the situation in his Liverpudlian accent: “So subaltern studies is dead.” I don’t think he heard me, but I replied, “Long live subaltern studies.”

But then again, half the shit I say is just the other half of the shit I didn’t say anyway.

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