Criticism and Policing: Contemporary Literary Thought in the Andean Region
Today, literary criticism’s biggest fear is to offend. The so-called culture wars have spread the idea that yielding to the “poetics of the minor” makes one right in literary terms. By the same token, it is assumed that embracing the latest theories and getting greater attention is worth more. These conditionings have finally decentered the figure of the literary critic, making criticism a very dangerous double-edged sword. The first condition—in principle a real godsend for a sector traditionally held hostage by the self-legitimizing anxieties of its participants—has mutated, be it in Medellin, Quito, or Lima, into a weird syndicate of police-writers, in which edicts and intimidation have erased any liberal or socialist fantasy of fruitfulness in the dialogue of conflicting opinions. The second condition—as happened with the political changes that South America lived through at the beginning of this century—has proven Tomasi di Lampedusa’s maxim right, confirming how the new cultural elites operate in the same way as those that criticized the newcomers. It’s sad to begin with such a disheartening conclusion, but currently what is said matters much less in relation to the supposed transparency and innocuousness of who says it. The mediocrity of the Habermasian dream of consensus reached its Parnassus with the triumph of the supposition that it is best to be quiet or be an optimist without foundation instead of pointing out the excesses, criticizing faulty work, or standing clear of the dogmatism or mental laziness of theoretical or militant fashions. By failing to provide historic-analytical specificities, literary criticism of and about the Andean region has succumbed spellbound to these infatuations, which proves the strange although historically constant repetition of the paradox of the intellectual left’s conservatism.
If something confirms the weakness of the critical panorama in the Andean region, it’s the decision in 2020 to cease—or to reestablish, depending on who says it—the Bogotá-based Arcadia, created in 2005 and affiliated with the press group Semana. Arcadia had managed to challenge common sense on consensuses that were taken for granted in Colombian and international cultural production. Directed by Juan David Correa from 2016 until 2018, Arcadia crystalized as a benchmark for thought and reflection in the field of literature, cultural criticism, book news, cinema, and, of course, politics. It also replaced El Malpensante, founded in 1996 by Mario Jarsich and Andrés Hoyos Restrepo, a magazine which had fallen into a spiral of a lack of innovative content and anachronic and prudish aesthetic criteria. Not the least of this ill can be attributed to a generational shift that El Malpensante processed slowly, and, perhaps, egotistically. The casts of cultural legitimacy are very well marked in Colombia, having a presence throughout the spheres of publishing, government, and communications. Bogotá and Medellín count with their own very visible and influential bosses, who find it hard to welcome and make space for—generally speaking—progressive, and, moreover, new people’s ideas.
Even given how stimulating Arcadia was, nothing changed—as Ricardo Piglia had said in Crítica y ficción [Criticism and Fiction]—for Latin American literature to be understood as a collection of literary subregions, within which the geography of the Andes would form a compact, irrefutable universe. Yes: Lima and Bogotá serve as centers of publishing and distribution of the most important book conglomerates, Planeta and Random House, but seldomly do these cities look each other in the face. Quito, with its less colossal size and a still somewhat provincial cultural mood, has spent years receiving the releases that come primarily from Colombia and contributing with very small quotas of authors who publish binationally. Bolivia is barely outlined on the map, although the publishing initiatives of El Cuervo and Mantis—whose publishing policies have earned them stimulating catalogs—can indeed be redeeming. The years that Leonardo Valencia (1969), originally from Guayaquil, spent in Lima, or the astute maneuvering in public relations that Gabriela Alemán (1968) from Quito devised as a representative of Ecuadorian narrative can be exceptions to these tendencies. Much more doesn’t exist, although independent Ecuadorian publishers—sprung up in the last five years with heartwarmingly small, bold projects—have slowly incorporated Latin American authors, albeit Argentines more than anything.
If the circulation of cultural offerings can be summed up with this brief overview, that of the development of literary criticism is even narrower. It is not erroneous to emphasize that criticism coming out of the Andean region is confined to usually American academic spaces, and it devotes its attention more than anything to discussions on a national level than on the scale of the region or Latin America. Literary awards and monetary prizes contribute to this tendency, usually closed to foreign or non-resident essayists. In this way—and as Ignacio Echevarría already said it in 2018, in Quito precisely—national literatures come out, at least from the spaces carved out by critics, strengthened as defined realities. From there, they employ mental maps of association and interpretation that usually end where their publisher’s distribution or where the effect of an academic document end. Likewise, after the death of Antonio Cornejo Polar, it is be very difficult to find critics that engage with Andean work as a homogeneous geography, or, at least, with similar characteristics. Even worse: that have an impact beyond their classrooms with their ability for reasoning or their originality of proposals.
If it’s a matter of the location of known critics from the Andes, the map looks dismal: few regularly live in the region. The spaces bestowed by American academia are more populated. However, the place of birth is not indicative of the aesthetic preoccupation. It is also prudent to avoid the sum of four countries and in this way be captivated by an aggregate of critical production: Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, and Colombia barely allow their literatures to dialogue with one another, and if they do, the exercise is registered within a Latin Americanist discourse. There aren’t, therefore, specialists in the literature “of the Andes”. There are Peruvianists, Ecuadorianists, Colombianists, and, within this last group, academics preoccupied with the Caribbean, another fuzzy zone with a very complicated demarcation. In areas such as the circulation of books, Bolivia is the most forgotten region.
In these countries, the vast majority of contemporary exercises in criticism have paid a just or exaggerated tribute to the schism brought on by the arrival of cultural studies and poststructuralist thought. Literary criticism as such no longer exists, and, for better or for worse, its best offshoots should be read as part of cultural criticism—multidisciplinary and politicized—but indifferent to the philological tools with which literature endowed itself to examine a text. If one does not join the repertoire of wrongs offered by the academy—usually the study of minor things, be they ethnic, racial, or of political or sexual orientation—the framework of critical production is even more reduced, almost always confined to collaboration in international publications and a subsequent gathering of the texts in book form. This is what Juan Gabriel Vásquez (Bogotá, 1973) has done as a columnist in El espectador and an essayist in longer form in publications such as Letras Libres. As a realist reader and writer, he shines as an epigone of Vargas Llosa. Although he possesses the advantage of not having allowed himself to be dazzled by the theoretical excesses that are the order of the day, Vásquez takes few risks, neutralizes any insertion into a critique that goes beyond the development of an interesting occurrence, and does not dare make interdisciplinary connections. It seems that his reading strategies have not been made aware of new way of approaching a literary text—some of these indispensable—such as considering the circumstances and the place of articulation. This is the case with “El arte de la distorsión,” [“The Art of Distortion”] his best known essay, which can be summed up as an elegant and informed proposal for the rereading of A Hundred Years of Solitude. Vásquez does not concern himself with the supports that criticism leans on—as was the case with Monsiváis, for example—literary findings in latitudes that aren’t legitimized, or an incisive, merciless reading. Like in Viajes con un mapa en blanco (2018) [Voyages with a Blank Map], he concerns himself with the conventional historical account—in a very officious way, for sure—and therein, or in cosmopolitan, well-polished accounts, inserts his rigorous, literary reflection.
On the contrary, the work of Juan Cárdenas (1978) or Carolina Sanín (1973) does aim to situate itself in other coordinates from which to practice literary, political, and cultural criticism. In the case of Cárdenas, one can observe in Volver a comer del árbol de la ciencia (2018) [To Eat from the Tree of Science Once Again] an example of a search to surmount the pedagogical and affected place of the usual literary criticism, especially in her venturous examination of the figure and work of Felisberto Hernández. In the case of Sanín, it is in that mix of chronicle and essay that is Somos luces abismales (2018) [We are Abysmal Lights], where she situates her habits and method of critical procedure in distinct settings, be it to view cinema, read books, or examine the political development of his country. Both are very good ambassadors of literary criticism on Facebook. Some of their publications on this social network have given rise to collective debates: bright, strategic, erudite, and provocative; and there is no reason to think that public discussion about national culture does not take place there, such as when Sanín related the vicissitudes that she lived through when she was let go from the Universidad de Los Andes, in Bogotá. It would be nonsense to separate literary criticism from visual, political, or personal reflection in both writers. The same gaze that examines literature is used on everyday occurrences, the narco-politics of their country, or the bold jabs they take at their opponents, generally critics or writers of previous generations or with a different political leaning. The presence of Cárdenas and Sanín is good news, especially if they are not compared to Vásquez, an applied and sometimes outstanding disciple of Vargas Llosa and Javier Cercas, whose tone he takes delight in over and over again. It is prior writings that fall short, like those heralded by Héctor Abad Faciolince, whose books of criticism—Palabras sueltas (2002) [Loose Words], Las formas de la pereza (2007) [The Shapes of Laziness], and Traiciones de la memoria (2009) [Betrayals of Memory]—barely reach a simple impressionism.
Other than Valencia’s criticism in El síndrome de Falcón (2008, 2020) [The Falcón Syndrome] and Moneda al aire. Sobre la novela y la crítica (2017, 2018) [Coin Toss. On the Novel and Criticism], the Ecuadorian landscape does not show a lot of variation. In Ecuador, the academic Álvaro Campuzano Arteta came out with a very intelligent first book on the relationship between José Carlos Mariátegui and literature tilted La modernidad imaginada. Arte y literatura en el pensamiento de José Carlos Mariátegui (1911-1930) (Madrid, 2017) [Imagined Modernity. Art and Literature in the Thought of José Carlos Mariátegui (1911-1930)]. A rather unoriginal adaptation of sexual diversity to the Andean world, in tune with authors like Paul B. Preciado, the work of an academic like Diego Falconí Trávez and his De las cenizas al texto. Literaturas andinas de las disidencias sexuales en el siglo XX (2016) [From Ashes to Text. Andean Literatures of Dissident Sexualities in the 20th Century] pales in comparison to the rigor and originality of Campuzano. If Falconí is able to incorporate sensibilities relegated to the most progressive field of literary criticism, like sexual diversity, he surely could distance himself from the rather clear coincidence between metropolitan literary criticism and its automatic application to sensitive forms and fields that do not necessarily correspond to the postulates advocated therein. Thinking in a revisionist way, it is probably time to reflect upon how strategies that praise identities can be distanced from the culturalist market and tighten the correspondence between text and circumstance, in such a way that textual ethics do not only fall upon representations of the marginal or subaltern.
In Latin America, intellectual work and criticism also rely on scandal and institutional appropriation, and these strategies do not always have negative results. This, however, is not equivalent to the acknowledgement of talent, as a reader or as an essayist, in one who operates in such a way. Such books as well as their public circulation are indicative of a very Anglophone way of thinking about critical work, based on the transfer of the relative worth of a piece onto the creation of a moral subject, as if the critic, a priori, had to go through the filters forming an acceptable and accepted personality, not for legal standards, but for moral ones. This strategy of gaining legitimacy makes the imagination of the writing depend on sensitive forms and, more than anything, on the very “criticism of criticism,” which is now based—in the best cases—on biography, and—in the worst cases—on denunciation and scandal as guiding criteria of its evaluations.
It is not new for criticism—usually inclined towards the confrontation of ideas and distinct forms of evaluating the realm of the symbolic—to have become a new tool of social control. What’s new is the relative consensus with respect to the shift from the oeuvre to the person as that which legitimizes what is given approval or discarded. The consequences of the enthronement of the “moral pedestal” that ought to give credit to the critic are within view: the hypertechnification of literary language; the politicization and gradual labeling of horizontal strata, entirely alien to the organic and interclass methods of political solidarity; and unoriginal critical approximations, where the discourse took precedence over the text and the intellectual impasse between politics and literature dissolved into a celebration of a very neo-liberal way of being a leftist: the pomp for identity politics and the death of equality politics, of the common subject.
There is no other way to look upon the recent critical work of one of the most sensitive readers of the Peruvian literary spectrum, Iván Thays (1968), who for several years kept up a successful blog dedicated to news of the literary world and who then had to put up with a series of nationalist attacks “for criticizing Peruvian gastronomy,” which was not to his personal liking. It was not so much that Thays had spearheaded literary criticism in the new channels of cultural discussion: rather, this is about the pasteurization of the critic up to the point of being converted into a sort of clerical meta-figure, suffering and inculpated because of his biographical privileges, as conditions for elaborating readings supposedly empathetic and in solidarity with the subaltern condition. In the face of such pressure, the work of criticism became an evanescent or ghostly thing, constantly evading the eventualities that could topple it with a biographical sophism. The increasingly subdued voice of the critic has as its natural venue the Latin American chronicle, a strange mix of radicalism and ascertainable fact—the “fact checking” of The New Yorker—and an ease with the narration of circumstances or the description of people.
Showing is better than judging, the chronicle seems to say, having as its most notable speakers the Peruvians Gabriela Wiener (1975) and Julio Villanueva Chang (1967), the latter having the merit of founding Etiqueta negra, started in 2002 and now defunct. Etiqueta negra published pieces of journalism of enviable quality, although one could observe therein with greater clarity the transformation of the literary critics into tellers of ascertainable stories: very informed individuals with exceptional aesthetic sensibility, writing with the restrictions allowed by factual recourse. The determinism of judgment over the critic in a broad sense has prevailed over the difficulties of circulation, promotion, and regional discussion. Not only were Heberto Padilla and Reinaldo Arenas its victims, but Borges, Walsh, Benedetti, Rama, and the noble Henríquez Ureña as well in their time.
One is frequently reminded that the paths of reason are inscrutable and occasionally produce monsters. One forgets, however, that the policing, kowtowing to Anglophone “authorities,” and the puritanism of Latin American literary criticism continue to produce a deaf dialogue, an extremely poor textual relativism from which the relative autonomy of the text and the fragile transit of ideas cannot break free.
Translated by Luis Guzmán Valerio
Antonio Villarruel (Quito) is a doctoral candidate in the Hispanic Literatures program at El Colegio de México and at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, where he is finishing a dissertation on contemporary Latin American intellectuals. He is a frequent contributor to journals in Europe and the Americas, among them Letras Libres. He is the author of Ciudad y derrota (2010) and Versiones de la vecindad (2011), a documentary on Mexican cultural critic Carlos Monsiváis. In 2019 he was a Fellow at the LLILAS-Benson Collection at the University of Texas-Austin. Currently, he is a Fellow at the Freie Universität Berlin. He lives between Mexico City and Madrid.
Luis Guzmán Valerio has a Ph.D. in Latin American, Iberian, and Latino Cultures from The Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His creative writing has appeared in Chiricú. His literary translations have been published in BODY Literature, Delos, FIVE:2:ONE, Sargasso, and Translators’ Corner. He lives in New York City.
In our sixteenth issue, we celebrate Mapuche poet Elicura Chihuailaf, who in 2020 became the first indigenous writer to receive Chile's National Prize for Literature. We also feature dossiers dedicated to the work of Andrés Neuman, Latin American literary criticism, and the Latin American essay, plus a bilingual selection of texts from Dispatches from the Republic of Letters: 50 Years of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature commemorating Gabriel García Márquez, the first Latin American author to win the prestigious Neustadt Prize.