Tuesday, April 8, 2008


Thoughts on which to conclude.
Ethicism rests on the claim that actual responses can be had towards fictions: philosophers may debate the reality of fiction induced emotions such as pity or fear, but no one would deny the reality of pleasure or displeasure one feels toward fiction. Appeal to actual responses is important because it allows the ethicist to circumvent the objection that, since a reader cannot actually possess responses he only imagines, he cannot be held morally responsible for them. For the ethicist, this is to be denied for two reasons: first, since imagined responses are expressive of a one’s moral character, a person can be ethically condemned for his imagined responses. Second, since the attitudes manifested by works toward fictional entities implicitly manifest the same attitudes in regards to real entities of that kind, it follows that artworks can be aesthetically flawed due to the morally reprehensible character of emotions implicitly directed at real situations. These reasons force the ethicist into the uncomfortable position of adopting a discourse of moral condemnation, both in regards to works that approve of evil and the people who enjoy them: the reader aroused by scenes of sexual torture in Juliette, or the sexual relationship that transpires between a tortured prisoner and her torturer/lover’s son in La hora azul, is to that extent morally depraved, since his responses are a reflection of a corrupt character; de Sade or Cueto’s work is aesthetically defective to the extent that it fails to condemn its morally reprehensible subject matter. Though I agree that the ethical and aesthetic domains are intertwined, I find these reasons excessively moralistic. The ethicist thesis condemns representations of rape, pedophilia, sexual torture, incest—whether in the mind or in art—at face value, without considering the dark and damaged reaches of the human soul from which they spring. It is my feeling that literature, as form of rationality, is the expression of reason’s darker, subterranean other half. Perhaps the mark of a truly ethical work of fiction is that it brings this darkness to light, fully and without moral condemnation.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Argentina as Faust

Virginia Guevara, one of Las viudas de los jueves’ two main narrators, arrives with her family at Altos de la Cascada after having got a real bargain (un negocio redondo) on a house whose owner, Antieri, a reclusive military man whose name curiously resembles Galtieri, Argentina’s de facto president during the country’s murderous last military dictatorship, committed suicide. Profiting from tragedy is a recurrent theme: not only does the enthusiasm with which Virginia negociate the transaction lead her to a thriving real-estate career built on the financial woes, job losses and marital breakdowns of her clients, but the insistence of one of her neighbours, that one should take advantage of the incredibly cheap New York hotel deals following 9/11, reminds us of our own self-interested motives—who didn’t think of popping down to post-crisis Argentina for a holiday, when the cost of living plummeted and bargains were to be had aplenty to holders of strong currencies? Hay que aprovechar. The novel opens with a fictional suicide that not only resonates with the recent past, but also forshadows the collective suicide of its dénouement, itself analogous to the near destruction of a once prosperous country having sought immediate happiness through a Faustian bargain with the US dollar and having paid a heavy price. When visiting Antieri’s house for the first time, Virginia finds empty bookcovers of Goethe’s masterpiece, which suggests a willed ignorance of the consequences of commerce with the devil, or, in Argentina’s case, with the International Monetary Fund.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The personal and the political

The personal and the political coincide in Agosto y fuga, a novel in which a group of citizens in Mexico’s capital find their intimate lives intertwined with the political events of the day, namely the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas and the Mexican elections of August, 1994. Though the ‘intense solitude’ of these educated, cosmopolitan characters is convincing, the connection between it and the larger national drama in which this solitude unfolds—the formal axis on which this novel is based--is less so. Unlike Las viudas de los jueves, in which the personal and political are structurally integrated in such a way that the events leading to Argentina’s 2001 economic collapse inform both the novel’s form and the psychological makeup of its characters, I often had the impression that the dramatic historical events of August 1994 were tacked on to an otherwise very engaging novel about relationships. Villegas’ novel requires a seamless integration of micro and macrocosm to succeed, but instead provides a succession of disjunctive registers in which the existential and romantic collide against the political—the latter being replete with acronyms potentially confusing to the Mexican reader. Agosto y fuga is good but only have so.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

laberintos de perplejidad

I read Órbitas. Tertulias like a rendez-vous manqué, a desencuentro in which, alas, estabamos condenados a no coincidir. Grasping it is similar to the author’s attempt at grasping his dream: se mueve casi sin límites por el mapa…de tan nítido el sueño se ha vuelto borroso. Am I dozing off out of genuine fatigue, or is Orbitás itself the somnífero? As is often the case when reading blurry phrases—Pero me gusta el dark. Super Dark. Recontramosfostrofólico—I’m never sure whether their impenetrability is a formal characteristic of the work, or whether it owes more to my limited access to the Spanish language. In the case of Mirko Lauer, it is probably both. Reading the experimental cut-ups of a writer like William Burroughs (whom Lauer apparently frequented and with whom he seems to share a fondness for peyote) is work enough in English. But reading his Hispanic imitators, or in this case Czecho-Hispanic, is work and then some. ¿Enjoyadísimo? Hardly. Quite frankly, I’d rather be watching Burroughs eat lunch naked; or, like participants in a nautical tertulia, be drinking vulgar but honest wine; or be buying second-hand clothing in London; or even be reading Dé Hache Lawrence.
What is uncomfortable about this is that it subverts any confidence I might have in making a plausible aesthetic judgment—No te entiendo Mirko—, making it tempting to fall back on the prestige generated by the cultural economy—¿Primado en París? It must be good—to make it for me. But that would be too easy. I’m as susceptible to the aura of Parisian cultural mandarinism as the next guy, but not a slave to it. So I will only risk a question: Could Oribitas. Tertulias be surfing the same waves as Lauer's poetry, those cargada[s] de dioses varios que va[n] llevando [al autor] hasta [su] propria parodia?

Thursday, February 7, 2008

It's about the prize

In the Economy of Prestige, James F. English continues Bourdieu’s (and Weber’s) work of disenchantment. Bourdieu demystified ‘pure’ art’s illusion of transcendence by identifying its inner logic as one moment in a dialectic of merchandise and signification, money and art, bourgeois and avant-garde. This antagonism generates the cognitive pre-conditions necessary for the field of cultural production to exist and allows for symbolic value to be consecrated on its products. English isolates a specific moment in the process of consecration, the attribution of artistic and literary prizes, and demystifies it by exposing its unacknowledged rules and dialectical workings. His main idea is that works of art receive symbolic value, not through the awarding of prizes, but through contempt for the awards process itself: that critics rail against misguided awards committees incapable of recognizing true art presupposes that the latter exists and maintains the unconscious collective belief (illusio) that art is a special commodity owing its prestige to the fact that it inhabits a realm above crass political or mercantile interests. The prize is an example of symbolic value production, in which value is conferred onto that which lacks it intrinsically. In the symbolic economy, products such books or paintings have little value as physical objects; what counts is that they be recognized as valuable, which is neither automatic nor intuitive but constructed by institutions, among them the prize industry, that allocate worth onto that which is otherwise worthless. Prizes maintain the illusion that recognition of good art is intuitive, self-evident; when they go to the wrong pearson (such as Sully Prudhomme and not Tolstoy, or Larry Heinemann and not Toni Morrison), the resultant scandal—“the instrument par excellence of symbolic action”—confirms our belief that artistic greatness announces itself while obscuring the fact that artistic value is a cultural commodity socially produced by critics, professors, award committees, by all those agents with vested interests in believing in it. Distaining the prize industry reassures us that art has value; or rather, it reassures those of us who need to believe that art is valuable. I am one who needs such an illusion.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

It's about the money

Bourdieu’s analysis of the field of artistic and literary production would seem to support the claim that, in the post-Enlightenment France, art has replaced religion. By analyzing the dialectical opposition between the logics of money and art, Bourdieu expands on Weber’s characterization of rationality as either instrumental or substantive, the former being oriented toward economic efficiency, the latter toward ultimate ends whose value is judged according to religious or metaphysical worldviews. Weber saw modernization as the progressive rationalization of all aspects of social life, a process in which instrumental rationality becomes embodies itself in capitalism and substantive rationality dissolves into autonomous cultural value spheres (Bourdieu’s fields), each with its own logic. Modernization for him was also the disenchantment of the world, or the de-sacralization of social life in which “the old mysteries of religion are clarified in the cold light of scientific day”. Bourdieu’s sociology, which investigates the unthought, pre-reflexive conditions underlying social practices, participates in this disenchantment and his analysis of symbolic goods de-mystifies art much like Enlightenment thinking demystified religion.

What is striking in Bourdieu’s analysis is just how much the logic of ‘pure’ art functions in secular France like that of religion in pre-modern societies. Bordieu views schools as homologous to churches, both of which, in Weber’s words, "found and systematically delimit the new victorious doctrine and defend the old against prophetic attacks, establish what has and what does not have sacred value, and make it penetrate into the faith of the laity”. Something of the Protestant work ethic, the impetus behind capitalist modernization, survives in the (anti-) economy of pure art, which must appear disinterested in money order to make money: “The vision that makes of asceticism in this world the condition of health in the hereafter finds its principle in the specific logic of symbolic alchemy that maintains that investments will not be recouped unless they are (or seem to be) operating at a loss”. Avant-gardism, which “offers no other guarantee of its conviction than its indifference to money”, thus only appears as the new asceticism. The logic of pure art partakes in Weber’s substantive rationality as residue of the pre-modern and pre-enlightenment in a fully rationalized world, but the artwork’s ‘economic angelism’, its claim of transcendence, of obeying a telos superior to the merely instrumental, of existing as the metaphysical purity of the thing-in-itself (l’art pour l’art), is an illusion. This illusio is constitutive of art’s very mode of being; the appearance of transcendence is its fundamental law. Art obeys a theological logic and must be permanently produced and reproduced by celebrants and believers whose conviction is based on a collective misrecognition that art is not all about the money. This is the only way Editions de Minuit’s 1952 publication of Beckett’s En attendant Godot could make money, and making money, even if it must be deferred as the symbolic capital of consecration is accrued, is the reason why was published in the first place. There is nothing outside of instrumental rationality.

Bourdieu does not explain why this post-Enlightenment transfer took place, why the illusion of religion was replaced by the illusion of art. Could it be that, imprisoned within the iron cage of capitalist-instrumental rationality, we have no choice but to collectively generate illusions to make it bearable?

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Pastoral de desengaño

I use the above as title for this last blog entry on 100 años because I think it is suggestive of the book as a whole. A pastoral is a literary genre portraying an idealized version of country life. From its early days as an utopian Eden where death is unknown and things have yet to be given names, to its final days as a dystopic Sodom of decadence and corruption, the story of Macondo is one of progressive disenchantemtment, of a pastoral gone wrong. It is one replete with biblical references; from paradise to paradise lost, Macondo is the site of an epic deluge, of spiritual decay and final apocalypse. When José Arcadio (II) squanders Ursula's hidden treasure by transforming the Buendía house into a decadent paradise of "equivocal pleasures", one of which includes bathing in champagne with naked adolescent boys, the reference to Sodom is clear and one might suggest A Hundred Years of Sodom as an alternative title. (In a book whose female characters conform so firmly to traditional gender codes, the use of homoerotic evocation to denote sin and foreshadow biblical apocalypse is not really surprising). Yet Macondo is not destroyed for the sin of homosexuality (which is only hinted at), but rather for having been founded in bad faith as an attempt to free its founders from the shame of incest and murder. This unresolved shame condemns the successive generations of the Buendia clan to seek out solitude and silence as a way to avoid communication, change, truth. Members of this clan rarely change, remaining two-dimensional static entities caught up in "un engrenaje de repeticiones irreparables, una rueda giratoria que hubiera seguido dando vueltas hasta la eternidad, de no haber sido por el degaste progresivo e irreperable del eje" (471). Once the truth is finally known, once Aureliano Babilonia draws the curtains to the city of mirrors and deciphers Melquiades' parchments, nothing can stop the ants' final invasion and the wind from erasing the memory of Macondo and its melancholy inhabitants forever. Sometimes repetition is preferable to change, silence to truth, especially when the latter threatens to overwhelm. Fortunately literature exists as a means of documenting the compulsion to repeat, and by doing so, breaking it. Perhaps there would be less solitude were literature not relegated to cargo class.

A few last words on repetition in art:
Each art has its own imbricated techniques of repetition, the critical and revolutionary potential of which must reach the highest possible degree, to lead us from the dreary repetitions of habit to the profound repetitions of memory, and ultimately to the [symbolic] repetitions of death, through which we make sport of our own mortality.
Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition.