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Recherche littéraire/Literary Research

Fall 2019


Edited By Marc Maufort

Daniel Acke, Mark Anderson, Eugene L. Arva, Franca Bellarsi, Valérie-Anne Belleflamme, Thomas Buffet, Ipshita Chanda, Mateusz Chmurski, Wiebke Denecke, Christophe Den Tandt, Lieven D’hulst, César Domínguez, Manfred Engel, Dorothy Figueira, John B. Forster, Massimo Fusillo, Gerald Gillespie, Marie Herbillon, S. Satish Kumar, François Lecercle, Ursula Lindqvist, Jocelyn Martin, Jessica Maufort, Marc Maufort, Sam McCracken, Isabelle Meuret, Delphine Munos, Daniel-Henri Pageaux, Danielle Perrot-Corpet, Frank Schulze-Engler, Monica Spiridon, Jüri Talvet, Daria Tunca, Cyril Vettorato, Hein Viljoen, Jenny Webb

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Mark Anderson: Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado, ed. Mexican Literature in Theory. New York: Bloomsbury, 2018. Pp. 305. ISBN: 9781501332517.

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Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado, ed. Mexican Literature in Theory. New York: Bloomsbury, 2018. Pp. 305. ISBN: 9781501332517.

This compilation of critical essays looks to expand the theoretical approaches commonly taken to Mexican literature from the nineteenth century to the present. As the editor points out in his introduction, literary criticism rooted in theory has often been viewed with suspicion in Mexican academic circles as well as in the work of “Mexicanists” abroad, both of which tend to privilege aesthetic appreciation, the philological construction of a national canon, and/or social critique. The contribution this book looks to make, then, is to expand the possibilities for reading Mexican literature through recent advances in a variety of theoretical fields as well as problematizing and thereby deepening established critical traditions. Organized chronologically (according to the date of publication of the literary works analyzed), Mexican Literature in Theory contains chapters drawing on seven main theoretical approaches, some of which overlap: Orientalism and Pacific studies (chapter 2), cultural history and the critique of liberal capitalism (chapters 3, 8, and 11), aesthetics (chapters 4, 5, 7, 9, 10, and 14), ecocriticism (chapter 6), disability studies (chapter 12), the discourse of violence and the state (chapter 13), and the fraught relations between literary craft and the marketplace (chapters 15 and 16).

Laura Torres-Rodríguez’s chapter on “Into the ‘Oriental’ Zone: Edward Said and Mexican Literature” opens the volume with reflections on the ways in which three Mexican works complicate the Western tradition of Orientalist representation. Engaging works spanning two centuries (Fernández de Lizardi’s El Periquillo Sarniento [1816], Rafael Bernal’s En diferentes mundos [1967], and Julián Herbert’s La casa del dolor ajeno [2015]), she traces a trajectory by which indistinctions between Mexican selves and Oriental geographies provide openings for critiquing the Mexican state. As her section title “Stretching Toward the Pacific” indicates, her chapter pays close attention to the trans-Pacific circulation of bodies and aesthetics, in which Mexican Orientalism, rather than an oppositional projection of the Western self over the Oriental other, ←239 | 240→becomes a way of positioning oneself towards the other for the ends of self-critique. As she summarizes in her thesis paragraph, “Orientalism here goes beyond its conceptualization of faraway geographies, to appear as the same apparatus that operates inside the nation-state in the process of configuring a specific division of labor based on biopolitical distinctions and determinations” (13).

The second chapter, Ana Sabau’s “The Perils of Ownership: Property and Literature in Nineteenth-Century Mexico” inaugurates a series of historicist critiques of liberal capitalism. Sabau discusses the problematization of concepts of private property and the commons in representations of water during the Porfiriato in works by two authors, José Tomás de Cuéllar and Manuel Gutiérrez Nájera. She argues that Cuéllar’s novel El comerciante en perlas (1871) posits that “private property is a relation of enmity, where the other is (almost) always a threat,” the private property in this case being a pearl harvesting area in the Pacific Ocean (47). In contrast, Nájera’s chronicles on water management in Mexico City portray water as “ungovernable nature, both scarce and abundant, fluid and volatile,” whereby it comes to signify “the perceived obstacles that Mexico was facing entering modernity” (49). She closes her essay by affirming that nineteenth-century literature “was an important tool in reconfiguring the relations to the commons, thus participating in the processes of dispossession, accumulation, and enclosures on the commons that characterized the second half of the century and that would later lead to the onset of the Revolution” (49).

José Ramón Ruisánchez Serra’s “Pale Theory: Amado Nervo and the Absential” discusses Amado Nervo’s work in relation to canon formation in Mexican literary criticism and historiography. Arguing that Nervo has been banished from canonicity due to the perception that his work is derivative of other Latin American and European authors rather than “raro” (strange, singular), Ruisánchez Serra proposes to recover this writer’s value for serious literary criticism based on his heavy influence on contemporary popular culture, particularly with regards to science fiction, sentimental journalism and a “national and in fact transnational affectivity clearly legible in popular music” (57). Dialoguing with Žižek’s discussion of exemplary books, Ruisánchez argues that Nervo’s work makes visible the “absential feature, which usually remains silent, ‘missing from our understanding’ ” (61). Although the connections between this “absential feature,” the “raro,” the canonical, and popular culture ←240 | 241→itself are never really clarified, he appears to make the case that rather than singularity as an aesthetic feature, Nervo’s more accessible style and manipulation of the trope of sincerity brings the inner workings of singularity (its tendency to make the commonplace and the sentimental disappear as inconsequential?) to the forefront and therefore displays literature itself as procedure: “In other words, literature (qua fiction) is the name of the oscillation between the (failed) rhetorization of the absential and the textual trace of this failure” (65).

Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado’s “Mexican Revolution and Literary Form: Reflections on Nellie Campobello’s Cartucho” argues that the literary forms that arose from the Mexican Revolution reveal the incompleteness of the Revolutionary state’s totalizing drive to reorganize the productive and representational economies in Mexico following the end of the armed conflict. As he writes, post-revolution culture sought “to capture and territorialize the very upheaval against the history of extraction and accumulation into a subjectivity that would re-ordain the state and capital in the modernizing projects of postrevolutionary hegemony” (79). Rather than a “national allegory” supporting this project through the creation of its own institutionalized form, Sánchez Prado sees the “literature of the revolution” as putting on display its lacunae and its impossibility. Specifically, he analyzes Nellie Campobello’s Cartucho as a novel whose form “imagines totality otherwise, via images that weave themselves below the surface of the text or an empathy and solidarity ‘from below’ ” (82). According to Sánchez Prado, Campobello’s revindication of Villista perspectives and defamiliarized portrayals of violence disrupt the narrative of national unity, immersing the reader in the trauma that the national allegory purported to sublimate.

Carolyn Fornoff’s “The Nature of Revolution in Rafael F. Muñoz’s Se llevaron el cañón para Bachimba” draws on Deleuze and Guattari’s theorization of bodily affects in her discussion of representations of nature in post-revolutionary Mexico. She argues that Muñoz’s novel depicts a revolutionary subjectivity that arises not only from social inequalities, but also from the affective encounter with the arid Chihuahuan environment. As she writes, “Muñoz reworks and elevates the clichéd cult around ‘local color’ such that the role of the nonhuman is ultimately resignified,” as evidenced by the ambivalence surrounding the title word “cañón,” which signifies both a geographical feature and a firearm (97). In the end, “Chihuahua’s landscape is configured in two slightly contradictory ←241 | 242→modes: as a space that gives material and affective importance to the idea of Mexican nation, but also a space that ultimately resists state – and even human – capture” (99).

Bruno Bosteels’s “Reading Rulfo between Benjamin and Derrida: End of Story” draws on these two theorists’ formulations of debt and the purported end of storytelling in modern society to propose a rereading of Rulfo’s work as simultaneously a deconstruction/“demetaphorization” of the hegemonic narrative of the Mexican Revolution and a retelling of it with an eye to recovering a collective memory rooted in affective encounters, a process that he views as decolonial. The two theorists are tied together through the trope of death: the death of the other as debt in Derrida and the death of the storyteller in Benjamin. In this way, the debt incurred by the death of the storyteller would implicate the reader in a project of collective remembrance rooted in affect as much or more so than symbolic mediation.

Ericka Beckman’s “Rosario Castellano’s Southern Gothic: Indigenous Labor, Land Reform, and the Production of Ladina Subjectivity” revisits the implementation of liberal capitalism in Mexico with a discussion of how post-Revolution education, labor, and land reform initiatives affected race relations in Chiapas, provoking upper-class anxieties that are represented in Rosario Castellano’s Balún Canán through a gothic aesthetics. Somewhat inversely from what it may initially appear, the threat of appropriation of rich latifundistas’ land is not the promise of a return to the commons, even if one managed by the state, but rather the shift from a colonial economy oriented towards exportation to a small-scale capitalistic economy powered by small and medium sized agricultural production. Therefore, despite the emphasis placed on land redistribution, the shift from indigenous forced labor to wage labor becomes the primary theme in this novel, and along with it the racialized reinscription of ladino subjects as they are incorporated into the formerly indigenous agricultural labor market, placing their ideology of white(r) supremacy into question.

Christina Soto van der Plas’s “Beginnings of José Emilio Pacheco” analyzes the writer’s poetics of temporality, particularly as they relate to repetition and rupture. She associates these two movements with the imaginary of disaster (or a disastrous history) in his work, particularly with respect to the dialectic of “creative destruction” and becoming. At the same time, she relates this fragmented poetics to the excess that poetic language in general embodies with respect to representation, an excess that ←242 | 243→expends itself into silence. The “breaking point” between expression and silence, between repetition and rupture, would indicate the possibility of an event: “Between contingency and necessity, what is at stake is how the poem in its ‘today’ poses the possibility or impossibility of an event, or something that suddenly, ‘de repente,’ breaks the ‘rules’ of repetition by making the impossible happen” (167).

Pedro Ángel Palou’s “A Theory of Trauma and the Historical Novel: A Small Theoretical Treatise on Fernando del Paso’s Noticias del Imperio” oscillates between the creative and the critical in its approach to the historical novel, not least in its use of an aphoristic style. The author discounts the existence of the historical novel as such due to its explicit disassociation from the claimed objectivity of historiography and the fact that “even if it creates an illusion of the past, it lives in the present” in the sense that it relates to history only in the minds of its readers. This reflection leads to a second line of argumentation in which Palou affirms that for anything to become a “discursive event [in the sense of the telling of history], it must come from trauma” (178); additionally, the recreation of history in the reader’s (textifier in Palou’s usage) mind “demands, necessarily, participation in the catastrophe” (178). In this sense, the “testifier’s orphaned language calls to the textifier’s body, even if it has gone temporarily silent” (181). The excess that the event poses with respect to this process would thus surpass language and operate on the affective level of trauma. While the chapter does not make a wholehearted attempt to draw out this relationship within Del Paso’s novel, it does link this process to producing a form of “reconciliation” with the past rooted in “disappointment” (I would imagine “desilusión” in the Spanish original, which has somewhat different connotations), by which disappointment becomes an “analytical category” capable of producing a reconciliation with the past that does not erase its differences and the tensions between them.

Rebecca’s Janzen’s “Embodiment Envy: Love, Sex, and Death in Pedro Ángel Palou’s Con la muerte en los puños” combines a disability studies approach with Christopher Breu’s theorization of “embodiment envy” to argue that readers experience the recollections of the protagonist-narrator of Palou’s novel, a boxer from the lower-class Tepito colonia of Mexico City, in a vicarious way as a procedure for working out “their envy of the powerful bodies of those who produce goods and services” (206). According to the critic, this embodiment envy is linked to the fetishization of the character’s “drunken solitude” and sexual prowess.

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Lilia Adriana Pérez Limón’s “Visualizing the Nonnormative Body in Guadalupe Nettel’s El cuerpo en que nací” proposes a reading of this autobiographical text as a “conceptualization of political communities through images of disability,” locating the experience of vulnerability as a key factor in the rise of a politics rooted in the “being together” of affective encounter (211). Pérez Limón argues that the author’s traumatic experiences relating to her ocular deformity and the ultimate impossibility of corneal reconstruction lead to an acceptance and “rehabilitative noncompliance” that rejects the nationalistic imaginary of the ideal citizen and allows her to imagine an alternate, more inclusive form of the body politic.

Oswaldo Zavala’s “Fictions of Sovereignty: The Narconovel, National Security, and Mexico’s Criminal Governmentality” dismantles the hegemonic “national security” narrative locating “organized crime” as a form of criminal exception to the rule of law. Carefully contextualized, the chapter makes the case that criminality has been a constitutive feature of the Mexican state at least since the 1980s, particularly through the institution of the DFS (Dirección Federal de Seguridad). This situation gives rise to what Zavala calls “criminal sovereignty.” While the majority of literary and non-literary writing occludes this reality, subscribing almost completely to the fiction of national security, he argues that César López Cuadras’s novel Cuatro muertos por capítulo “constantly deconstructs hegemonic discourse on drug trafficking on two different levels: first, by setting it against the testimonial experience of a humble family of drug traffickers from the Sinaloa mountains in Northern Mexico that refutes the mythical narrative of drug kingpins as formidable criminals, and second, by ironically reworking that same mythology that informs most cultural productions about the drug trade as the absurd but effective material for a commercial Hollywood action film” (237). In this way, literature recovers its critical function beyond its imbrication in the “neoliberal book market,” which supports the governing narrative of drug trafficking and national security.

Brian Whitener’s “The Politics of Infrastructure in Contemporary Mexican Writing” examines the intersection of genre studies with the transnational literary market to reexamine the debate over the cultural autonomy/external influence dialectic. Looking beyond the economics of circulation and distribution, Whitener argues in favor of a focus on the different forms of publishing infrastructure that make possible generic distinctions and thereby change and variation in literary forms. As he ←244 | 245→states, “Unlike lenses such as the market or the commodity, which tend to homogenize, the concept of infrastructure allows us to see unnevenness between different systems of textual production and circulation, in particular outside state sponsored and capitalist ones” (262). Examining the rise of recent artisanal “Cartonera” publishing houses in Mexico as well as digital media, Whitener diagnoses a movement toward “desapropiación” in recent Mexican literature that combats the “systems of production decimated by neoliberalism” (272).

Emilio Sauri’s “ ‘Dickens + MP3 ÷ Balzac + JPEG,’ or Art and the Value of Innovation in the Contemporary Mexican Novel” addresses similar questions of autonomy from the marketplace through the lens of novelist Valeria Luiselli’s digital experiment in collective storytelling, La historia de mis dientes. Sponsored by the Jumex juice corporation’s Galería Jumex, Luiselli engaged workers at the Jumex factory in Ecatepec, who contributed sound bytes of themselves reading the text, comments, plotlines, and photographs. For Luiselli, this collaborative process gave rise to a Dickensian novel for the 21st century. Building on arguments by Adorno and Nicholas Brown, Sauri argues that “aesthetic judgment – here synonymous with interpretation – presumes there is something in the text that makes it more than just another commodity for the market, a meaning that amounts to something more than the attempt to meet consumer demand” (289). In this sense, although Luiselli’s work was widely judged a failure by critics, Sauri argues that “the value of innovation lies in its failure, insofar as the failure to produce a meaningless work of art marks the success of a postcapitalist imagination” (290).

While not all the chapters in Mexican Literature in Theory offer groundbreaking advances in terms of literary theorization, they do provide insight into several emergent approaches and flesh out current lines of inquiry such as those that many of the authors have presented in prior monographs. In this sense, the book serves as a good primer on recent theoretical approaches to Mexican literature, and it will be a valuable resource for graduate courses on Mexican literature as well as for critics looking to keep up to date with recent developments in the field.


Mark Anderson

University of Georgia, Athens

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