452ºF #12
The History of Theory and its Hispanic uses


The year 2013 witnessed the seventieth anniversary of Roland Barthes’s first book, Le degré zéro de l’écriture; in the year 2014 the call for papers for this issue went out, thirty years after the death of Michel Foucault. Brackets can be drawn around 1953 and 1984 in a way that is as decisive as it is arbitrary, marking out the start and the end of an era of French intellectual history that could be given the retrospective label of “the time of theory,” crisis period during which thought, politics and literature came to destabilize one another. Thirty years have now gone by since the end of this lively era during which our present understanding of literature, to a great extent, took root. This monograph, issue 12 of the journal 452ºF, takes as its aim the inquiry into how this thought has been passed down to us, and thus what ties us to it and what sets it apart from us.

The very distance provided to us by the fact that that era now forms part of history allows us to take a more analytical and thoughtful approach to writings of the period in order to gain a greater understanding of our contemporary critical discourse. What links us to that time period, and what separates us from it? What are the implications of the institutionalization and normalization of theory within academia? And to be downright polemical about it, we can ask in the words used in the Argentinean publication El ojo mocho twenty years ago, “¿Se puede salvar la teoría?”.

The various uses made of theory in varying Hispanic contexts have yet to be pooled together in a way that uses specific cases to illustrate strategic approaches and the transformations of discourse. In order to study this set of issues further, this monograph focuses on the cases of Argentina and Spain, two of the contexts in which this thought has received widespread acceptance.

In order to do so, the issue begins with a section of Critical Testimonies, featuring contributions by Enric Sullà, Nora Catelli and Beatriz Sarlo. In these texts, some of those who played leading roles in this story are able to have their say, and in so doing they define three moments and three situations: the “theory invasion” of Catalonia and Spain in the late sixties and early seventies (Sullà); the adoption and adaptation of these theories within the world of Spanish criticism and how it differed from a certain kind of contemporary international thought in the late eighties (Catelli); and finally a look back at the work of Roland Barthes and a present tense defense of the need to read him in the present day (Sarlo).

Sullà, a recently retired professor of Literary Theory and Comparative Literature at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, started his studies at that same university during the academic year of 1968-1969, a time at which, along with the promotion of revamped versions of Marxism and semiotics, “l’estructuralisme era a l’ambient.” In “Esperant els bàrbars,” he looks back at the publications of that era and his own reading, and puts into perspective some of the main paths along which French critical thought was introduced, sketching out a map of structuralism’s reception in Catalonia and Spain in the late sixties and early seventies. The ‘barbarians’ that Sullà refers to in his text are “no tan sols els estructuralistes sinó tots els pensadors francesos (i estrangers en general) que són esperats pels ciutadans d’un país sufocat, perquè l’han volgut aïllar fent-li creure que no li cal res de fora perquè ja ho té tot, un país, doncs, la gent més inquieta del qual espera paradoxalment que els forasters li resoldran els problemes que no ha sabut o no pogut resoldre.”

The second text in this section is “Retórica y jergas en la crítica contemporánea,” a lecture given by Catelli in Barcelona in 1987. In answer to the title of the course in which the lecture was included, the author posed a two-part question. On the one hand, she asked about the limits of criticism in Spain (“afirmaríamos que los límites de la crítica son, aquí, los límites de sus críticos”), and on the other hand, in a much more ambitious sense, about “los límites teóricos del discurso crítico en la reflexión actual.” The distance that separates one from the other (“un hiato, un auténtico vacío”) was the starting point for her reflections. Catelli thus proposed “la exigencia de una lectura de la teoría de la crítica contemporánea,” to be undertaken without “descuidar el análisis y la descripción de la crítica en España, porque es nuestro punto de partida y es nuestro medio natural.” Her lecture, which can be read today both as a speech and as a historical document, was a diagnosis of the assimilation of theory and an attempt to locate within history and the appropriate context what, at that time, seemed to be “este paisaje peninsular tan decepcionante.” After a review of the main trends questioning and challenging literary theory in the 20th century, Catelli focuses on the work of Paul de Man in order to highlight the weight of rhetoric within contemporary criticism. “El trabajo sobre la figuración, sobre la retórica,” she said then, “es la puerta estrecha por la que deben pasar los discursos críticos. Los cargos usuales contra la desconstrucción (rigor monótono, circularidad obsesiva, utilización de una jerga) son también síntomas de la conciencia creciente de lo retórico en todos los discursos.”

This section of testimonies closes with the text by Sarlo, “Barthesianos de por vida,” written in 2005. The author, one of the main forces behind both the resurgence of criticism in Argentina in the 70’s via the journal Los libros (1969-1976) and a certain critical trend subsequent to this tradition that began in the late 70’s with the founding of Punto de vista (1978-2008), here both presents and reclaims Barthes. Sarlo reminds us of the importance of literature to this author’s work, and she uses him as an example of a certain kind of intimate relation between criticism and literature. She writes: “Los que seguimos leyendo a Barthes somos barthesianos de por vida.”

These Critical Testimonies are followed by Miguel Dalmaroni’s guest article. In “Resistencia a la lectura y resistencia a la teoría. Algunos episodios en la crítica literaria latinoamericana,” Dalmaroni explores some of the recent debates surrounding criticism in Latin America and especially in Argentina, without ever neglecting to locate them in an overall theoretical space. Framed within the ideas of Paul de Man’s “resistance to theory,” this article deals with “resistances to the theory of reading,” and in relation to these resistances, Dalmaroni points to another one: that “resistencia irreductible de la literatura (y del lenguaje) a ser leída, a ser teorizada, es decir capturada (olvidada, reprimida) alguna vez―de una buena vez―por una ‘gramática’ capaz de explicarnos su ‘lógica’.” Based on this, Dalmaroni traces an arch and places an author at each of its two end points (two extremes between which it is possible to locate other possibilities): on one end Robert Duncan, with his social and cultural approach, and on the other Maurice Blanchot, with a theory of literary reading as excess or lack. The author highlights how Roger Chartier and Guglielmo Cavallo’s A History of Reading in the West leaves out the “papel activo, creativo e insubordinado de los lectores, los usuarios o receptors,” upon which Chartier himself had insisted in other texts. In addition, Dalmaroni points out how this text and others are dominated by a certain kind of vocabulary intended to evoke “el peligro del desvío abstracto, metafísico, subjetivista o poético al que, parece, conduciría cualquier desplazamiento hacia la pregunta filosófica o teórica.” Linked to this question, Dalmaroni refers “en la crítica argentina” to “tres generaciones de historias de lectura.” The article concludes with a conjecture that attempts to frame a kind of critical work that would not obscure “la resistencia que la literatura ofrece a la lectura” and thus “el residuo de indeterminación que toda ocurrencia de palabra siempre arroja.” This resistance by literature and the accompanying conjecture, which render reading a lack and mark the literary reader as a kind of void (the literary reader is not the social and cultural reader) seem to be politically preferable to other theories, according to the author, as long as there is a commitment to “una ética de firme y radical sesgo emancipatorio.”

This monographic section concludes with four articles divided into geographical groups. The ones by Vicenç Tuset Mayoral and Ester Pino Estivill are devoted to the history of theory in Spain. Tuset’s article, entitled “Herencia estilística y voluntad de renovación en la crítica literaria española de los setenta. Algo sobre Dámaso Alonso, Carmen Bobes Naves y Antonio García Berrio,” studies the reception of in Spain, filtered through the sieve of Dámaso Alonso’s stylistics and his reading of Saussure. To this end, Tuset analyses readings by Bobes Naves in La semiótica como teoría lingüística and García Berrio in Significado del formalismo ruso, two books that were published in 1973, and points out that “el compromiso humanista” meant that there was a limit to the reception that was given to structuralism and that this gave rise to “un debate con la estilística que inquietará menos de lo aparente sus fundamentos epistemológicos más hondos.” Tuset reminds us of structuralism’s epistemological revolution and points out that “la sorda hegemonía” of stylistics, “las comodidades de su sentido común y la imposibilidad de quebrar el territorio mismo de la polémica dentro del ámbito académico” were dominant traits of structuralism’s reception in Spain. His reading thus proposes that “la estilística hispánica, antes que contener o anticipar nada, se convirtió en un techo de cristal teórico que, contra lo aparente, obturó en buena medida la recepción de los aspectos más productivos del nuevo paradigma estructuralista.”

Ester Pino’s guest article “L’écriture barthésienne contre l’oubli (vue depuis l’Espagne)” deals with the reception that was given to Barthes’s work in the Spanish context of the end of the Franco dictatorship and the transition to democracy. The author observes that “alors que Barthes se confronte au discours réaliste pour affirmer a contrario la prévalence de la forme comme morale, la critique littéraire espagnole oppose un furieux désir de réalité.” Through the echoes of Barthes’s reception in Spain, Pino underlines how the Spanish political context presented him as a writer who was unconnected to issues of political commitment. As such, both his “textualism” and the work called for by the writer, not so much to “exprimer l’inexprimable” as to “inexprimer l’exprimablei” were seen as, and sometimes even denounced as, the product of an apolitical or even conservative attitude. All of this meant that “la réaction à la théorie barthésienne, plutôt que scandaleuse, a été sceptique” and the new commitment he proposed in Le degré zéro de l’écriture was interpreted as a reply to “l’art engagé que l’on souhaitait réaliser en Espagne”. While bearing in mind the differences between the French and Spanish literary spheres, Pino uses this analysis to propose an understanding of the causes of this “forgetting” of Barthes. She also points out that in the current Spanish context a reappraisal of Barthes’s late-period private writings might reveal certain affinities with the questions of historical memory and that this might show the way toward a reappropriation of the legacy of Barthes’s late period. Although Barthes’s work from the fifties and sixties was criticized in Spain for an apparent lack of historical awareness, as Pino writes “peut-être un retour à l’œuvre plus intime de Barthes pourrait nous offrir une nouvelle manière de comprendre l’histoire.”

The monograph also includes two contributions connected to Argentinean history. The first of them is the article entitled “Los discursos de la crítica literaria argentina y la teoría literaria francesa (1953-1978),” written by the author of this editorial (Max Hidalgo Nácher). In it I discuss how French literary theory contributed to a renewal of Argentinean literary criticism and how this renewal was expressed both politically and epistemologically. The article, which is founded on the concept of Foucaultian discourse, is an attempt to study the limits of discourse of an era taken as a whole, while at the same time pursuing a secondary aim of pointing out the uses that criticism made of theory, and thus how the latter transformed the former via specific sets of questions. With this end in mind, the text focuses on the study of critical work that was for the most part conducted on the margins of academic institutions and done in an especially collective way, centered in journals such as Los libros.

Regarding the issue of academia, it should be noted that in Argentina the relationship of literary theory with the university was particularly troubled for obvious political reasons until the end of the last military dictatorship. With the coming of democracy, theory would enter the university and help to bring about a change in the values and functioning of the institution. This very moment is the subject of the next article, “Algo más sobre un mítico Seminario (usina teórica de la universidad argentina de la posdictadura),” by Analía Gerbaudo, in which she reflects upon the intersections of theory and academic practice in post-dictatorship Argentina. There, the author was a student in the seminar entitled “Algunos problemas de teoría literaria” taught by Josefina Ludmer in 1985 at the Universidad de Buenos Aires, and here she shows with great clarity how the teaching of literature was often conceived in the Argentina of the early eighties as a much farther-reaching intellectual project, one for which the author of this article expresses her support. As Gerbaudo writes, “exhumar estos papeles de ‘inicios’ de Ludmer permite, entre otras cosas, iluminar la relación que se juega entre sus publicaciones y sus clases, descubrir cómo se gestan algunas preguntas que vertebran sus trabajos posteriores (convertidas luego en hipótesis o tesis) y complejizar los interrogantes respecto de su constante gesto vanguardista.”

The collection of these articles and testimonies aims to contribute to a greater understanding of the intellectual history of literary theory and, in turn, of the contemporary state of criticism; this aim was driven by a conviction: that placing literary theory, both from institutional and discursive perspectives, in its historical context can today be a way to make use of and reinvigorate it. Pointing out the things that both tie us and separate us from other times and spaces can help render current uses of theory more visible and ultimately help us to get our bearings with regard to the issues of contemporary criticism. We hope that this monograph, which would not have been possible without the generous collaboration of numerous professors and researchers from both sides of the Atlantic, contributes to this.

Issue 12 of 452ºF is rounded out by five other articles and a review. Isabel González Gil in “Valor y kitsch en La muerte de Virgilio reflects upon Hermann Brock’s theory of kitsch and on the possibility of writing in a disintegrated civilization defined by a crisis of values, as was the case in the first half of the 20th century. In “El arte como horizonte utópico del sentir en La Anunciación”, Andrea Castro considers María Negroni’s La Anunciación (2007) within the framework of Argentinean narrative of memory of the last military dictatorship. The article revolves around the possibility of a utopian horizon of feeling and knowledge that breaks with predominance of referential links to highlight the importance of art and literature in the construction of historical memory. In her article, “The Construction of the Global Female Subjectivity in Lucía Etxebarria’s Cosmofobia”, Mazal Oaknín studies the way in which that novel represents daily life in the neighborhood of Lavapiés in Madrid. The article takes as its theme the frictions and conflict that arise in contexts in which characters of very different origins are in close contact with one another, and looks at the construction of female subjectivity through this lens. In Lulu on the Bridge de Paul Auster, una reelaboración cinematográfica del mito de Pandora a través del sueño”, Óscar Curieses offers a reading of this work as a rewriting of the myth of Pandora, making use of psychoanalytic theory and problematizing the relationship between the imaginary and the real. And finally, Julia Zaparart and Soledad Pereyra, in their article “’Pour une littérature-monde en français’: notas para una relectura del manifiesto” study a manifesto that appeared in Le monde des libres in 2007, in which 44 authors questioned the distinction between “French literature” and “Francophone literature,” in light of its colonial origins; these reflections are then the starting point for their analysis of Syngué sabour. Pierre de patience by Afghani writer Atiq Rahimi. The issue concludes with a review written by Javier Rivero Grandoso of El género negro: el fin de la frontera, edited by Àlex Martín Escribà and Javier Sánchez Zapatero.


Max Hidalgo Nácher



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