John Beverly's Against Literature

— Tim Brennan

Against Literature
By John Beverly
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1993, $14.95.

IN SPITE OF his title, Beverly is not against literature, only a specific institution of letters launched in the Europe of the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries. Himself steeped in books, of course, and madly passionate about their ability to provide “new forms of human liberation and possibility,” Beverly frames the book almost as a confession.

We have to admit, he says, as painful as it might be to do so, that the ideology of the literary has engendered “an adult, white, male, patriarchal, `lettered’ subject.” Brought to the New World with smallpox and forced labor, literature spawned – in the very resistance to Spanish rule of, say, Simon Bolívar and José Martí – a social practice in which certain strata had traditionally constituted themselves as dominant.

Even contemporary revolutionaries like Carlos Fonseca and Roque Dalton fit the mold of “political-moral leaders” and “men of action” – something less, in other words, than the anonymous subalterns and Lacanian desiring subjects who populate the continent today and are mostly interpellated by the mass media.

These, Beverly writes, are the people upon whom any progressive Latin American social project depends, and they are in important ways not so much pre-literate as hostile to literacy itself. Turning deconstruction on its head, he does not see in literary texuality a pedagogical model for political practice (in the way, for example, one speaks of the world as “narrative”) but wants instead to displace what he sees as literature’s hegemony.

Against Literature’s look and mood are as important as its arguments. The book wears its reading well, comfortably roaming from the conceits of seventeenth-century Spanish verse to the muffled battle cries of post-punk journalism. Covering in the opening chapters literature’s elitist and male “ideology,” and examining a few examples of how U.S. mass culture in Latin America has enabled rather than stifled democratic challenges to inequality, the author passes then to a rich investigation of counter-reformation Spain and the literary style it so influentially produced: the “baroque” – the very essence of high formalism and artificiality and therefore a potent synecdoche of the literary itself, not least because the style – once exported to the New World colonies –- “enjoyed a profitable second-life” becoming in the hands of Alejo Carpentier and José Lezama Lima, for example, the definitive literary expression of the New World.

To counterbalance these examples, and to approach more closely his intended goal, Beverly spends the next chapters on the testimonio, a form lying between mass culture and literature in which female, gay, indigenous, and proletarian identifies are first allowed to emerge. Still later he tackles Latin America postmodernity as it exists on the ground in actual movements such as Rigoberta Menchu’s Committee of Campesino Unity, the ecological work of Chico Mendes, or Lula’s Brazilian Workers Party.

He concludes with an extended, impressionistic study of popular music (punk primarily) in an attempt to flesh out what he means by the “aestheticization of everyday life,” a move Beverly welcomes in his bid to make U.S. mass culture a model for a left cultural politics.

The Literary and the Postmodern

Having paid his dues to earlier books brimming with original scholarship, Beverly here displays an immense command of literary and political histories without a ponderous or boastful learning. It is an extremely modest and understated book – a book of compact generalizations and graceful judgments. A bit like Paul De Man’s Blindness and Insight, it travels light but leaves large tracks. At the very least, this volume leads Latin American studies into broader networks of convergence, inserting Latin American and peninsular literary studies into the current theoretical debates over cultural studies, mass culture, and the larger problems of culture in the Third World.

Even more, Beverly makes what (to me at least) is the strongest possible case for a postmodern politics. If in the end that case is not very strong (as Beverly confesses retrospectively in the book’s preface, where he chides himself for the “uncritical enthusiasm” he sometimes shows), the personalities, movements, and trends of the continent get such a magisterial going-over that one is simply unable to see cultural imperialism in the same way again.

If cuturalist extremes loom their head from time to time – for example, when he writes that we should make of “aesthetic experience itself ... one of the forms of agency of postcapitalist social life” – we are still left with a picture that makes another, more modest, version of postmodernism inviting. This version has to do with the point that the basis of any future movement can no longer be, or be only, “secularization and modernizaion.” Like him, I think it makes sense to see the big-growth, technological solutions as having passed in the face of reports of environmental collapse, and to see religious faith today more as contradictory than foolish, retrograde, or “unscientific.”

What marks this study is its generosity of concession. Without wearing self-scrutiny on his sleeve, he repeatedly shows just how thoroughly he has thought out the apparent weaknesses of his position. He draws attention, for example, to the possibility of postmodernism being simply a new form of cultural imperialism coincident with the rise of transnational capitalism; its rise during the Reagan years, he frankly states, was not entirely by chance.

And yes, postmodernism can arguably be seen in some sense as merely an attempt to “yuppify” politics. To latch onto mass culture as a substitute for “literature” on the grounds of its greater potential for democratization and its apparent avoidance of the hocus pocus of the aesthetic aura may, he supposes, only wind up being a “displacement of a modernist program from the sphere of high culture to the popular, now seen as more aesthetically dynamic and effective,” the creation of a “pop sublime.”

If after all these reservations, he stakes his claim to some still-to-be-refined version of a cultural politics, it is in recognition of the unsatisfying arguments of the holders of the fort. His principle foil is Neil Larsen, who has memorably attacked postmodernism for insisting that resistance to capitalism arises spontaneously in the act of consuming mass culture.

Larsen’s terminological charges – “distrusting the masses,” or revolution as a “praxis with a rational foundation” – do not, in fact, hold up very well under Beverly’s delicate rereading of one of Larsen’s key illustrations: Roque Dalton’s testimonial Miguel Marmol, which Beverly shows proves his rather than Larsen’s point.

Although the Larsen line does not prevail, there are soft spots in the overall argument. First, it is based on the urgency of displacing literary “hegemony.” But this is odd. Literature is not hegemonic, either in Latin America or anywhere else. Indeed, U.S. mass culture has a greater bid to that status, although it is not yet there. The central aporia of postmodernism seems rather to be found in Beverly’s urge to equate mass culture’s commodification of high art (which desublimates the artwork) with “the possibility of very radical forms of cultural democratization.” I don’t think so.

Even if (as he is careful to say) Beverly does not mean to emulate U.S. mass culture itself, but only the “possibilities of production, distribution and consumption it represents,” those possibilities closely reflect – and are generative of – capitalism, and it is really a kind of lifestyle capitalism “in the niche” that postmodernism, in code, is celebrating. To put it more simply: democratization and popularity are not the same thing.

When Beverly voices doubts about the vaunted literacy campaigns of Nicaragua, Ethiopia, Grenada and elsewhere because they reinscribe literature and literacy by making them “the privileged signifiers of central authority,” one wants to say, so what? The point is who, and how many, have them, and by having them, have “authority.” That is democratization, not the struggle over aesthetic desublimination.

However, as the rich data and nuanced reservations mount up, one begins to wonder just what kind of postmodernism Beverly really holds on to in the end. What kind includes, for instance (as it does for him), Cuba’s Casa de las Americas, the African National Congress, and the Sandinistas, who are included because they are not overcentralized,are open to coalitions, and are drawn to the political dynamics of cultural forms? The expansive sense in which he uses the term creates the book’s most interesting dilemma for the critic, for it might make criticisms of the book seem only slow on the uptake.

In other words, is this a book with residues of veneration for an activism it sees surviving in altered forms, or is this a book that slyly coopts the term “postmodernism” so that the struggle under its banner are simply those older, venerated forms of activism?

Either way the book is an education: one of the most thoughtful, accessible, and densely researched and experienced short studies of cultural politics on the ground.

ATC 53, November-December 1994