Criticism Spoken from a Place
Rodolfo Enrique Fogwill was able to get people to call him Fogwill, just like that. His last name was also his first name and a brand. By speaking, and speaking in a determinate time and place (the early eighties), he created the identity he needed to arouse rejection, admiration, fear, epiphanies, surprise, aggravation, arguments and other such diverse sensations among those who read him. Everything else was just a repetition of these reactions, but with variations and add-ons.
This brand, encapsulated in his last name, meant that his political and cultural writings, especially his journalistic essays and speeches, formed, en bloc, part of a great mass called Fogwill, which came across as solid and stoic, without much adornment, with a certain sobriety. It boasted in the way of one who reveals the only possible side to the conflicts and the vanities. In a combative and vain way. He spoke to battle the doxa, and what he said was infused with a solidity that endured only up to a certain point. The charm of his verdicts without fanfare, usually supported by a battery of facts and figures and very extraordinary details, would then give way, after having read them and had whatever sensation one had, to a mood of refutation or nuance, which a reader would of course need in order to be able to continue thinking about what they had read. In his way—maybe in spite of himself—Fogwill allowed the reader to stop just before the moment in which they believed what he said. He made you rethink the things you had already thought, because he demoralized you.
Where did he speak from? Did this place exist? So far, I haven’t used the word “criticism,” and Fogwill was a critic. He criticized and disparaged over a host of issues, all connected to the question of materialism. If he retained anything over the course of his life from his early Trotskyist sociological education, it was his penchant for interpreting contexts through the lens of materialism. He spoke from a concrete place, beyond his marketing office or his messy apartment, or from the jail on Avenida Caseros, where he was incarcerated a couple months for sending fraudulent bills to some multinational. These were the physical addresses, but each space, constituted for the occasion, was an edifice of argumentation established by the rhetorical tics and quite-clear phrasings of someone who, while being a critic, harmonized and rhythmized what he said with his singer’s calling—because he had an understanding of aesthetics and because the audience members willing to listen to him or read him had the attitude of someone who, before buying their ticket, says, “Let’s see what he’s up to now.” What I mean is, there was a certain enjoyment and also a certain esteem for him in each of his readers, even the ones who cursed at him after reading. This was what Fogwill, the brand, was leaving behind. This was the place, definitely, from which he spoke, which he set out to create with time, a certain solitude being his destiny. At a certain point he stopped talking to himself, and this solitude became as much a sign of his freedom as it was a product of his polemic grace at the podium, a grace often “for its own sake.” It was well known that Fogwill loved to sing, usually opera.
In his critical texts, there is a certain incidental background music. Not a fleeting music for the sake of aestheticism, but a sort of threat, a continuous bass of cogs that make the sound of History, which Fogwill knew so well he could laugh about it. History with a capital H was always the background he had to listen to. If he ever spoke about lower-case historia (or story) it was to dismantle cliques, social conventions, trends, moralism, stupidity, or simply to complain about what did not belong within his cascade of beliefs. Because he did have dogmas, enmeshed inside quite a transparent and firm rhetoric. It always seemed as if his big hammer strokes occurred to him in the moment, but “the moment” came because he had behind him an entire machinery to construct facts and arguments loaded with audacity, intelligence, arrogance, verbal violence, humor, recklessness, and spasmodic eruptions. We find a good example of all this in two complementary texts. An extensive interview from 1997 with the editors of the magazine El ojo mocho, published much later as a book titled Diálogos en el campo enemigo [Dialogues on enemy territory], and the essay “Cuadros” [Canvasses] from the same year, a series of portraits of militants and/or theorist friends (many of them disappeared) from the sixties and seventies, complied in Los libros de la Guerra [The books of the war].
He was once commissioned to write a self-portrait. It says this on the last page:
I know I have not written a single page I would dare publish that does not derive from the dictation of a voice. Sometimes weeks go by, even months, without hearing it. In periods of ordered life, regular meals and wellbeing or social harmony, it disappears. Disorder and conflicts summon it once again. I have not written anything that deserves any attention without having felt—while taking down the dictation of some emotion such as hostility, rage, hate, envy and anger—hazy forms of social conflict announcing something very vague. Sometimes I think I’m so close to understanding it, and I fail. Now I think I won’t stop writing until I grasp it fully.
I believe in truth, I adhere to the notion of sense, I cultivate consistency in action, and I pursue the ideal of authentifying myself. What I have asserted has nothing to do with literature. I know that literary work is born when you have nothing to assert, but rather the opposite.
This excerpt is quite the program about how to act. It is clear that this “voice” is not just musical, as he sometimes considered it, but it is musically conflictual. It goes up and down arrhythmically. It harbors dissonant tones and timbres. And another thing: one writes to understand. This precept contains one of the major reasons for his polemic essay, as well as for his literary work. We should think of the conscience in tandem with “being against”: the authentifying was a form of revenge; the two happened at the same time, without knowing the effect of one on the other.
One of Fogwill’s best remembered writings, one of the ones that continues to be discussed most, that remains a mark of his ways of thinking, and his support or rejection of something is “La herencia cultural del Proceso” [The cultural legacy of the (National Reorganization) Process]. The essay came out in what was considered a quintessential magazine of the time, El Porteño, a few months after the return of democracy to Argentina, in May 1984. It is an essay on everything that remains from one era to the next. It is also a way to be able to dispute the idea that generational changes are so definitive. And for Fogwill the reasons for the continuity lie in socioeconomic structure and in language, in how things are said. “Reality by definition is a lie.” Therefore, one tries to see what is behind reality, but this “behind” doesn’t exist; it’s the same as in front. It is the same plane. There isn’t a behind, but an oblique (paranoid, suspicious) method of inquiry. Usually there would be concrete matters, material interests that, if handed down to the next generation as “immeasurable,” would stay just as they were. Something like the trap of culture.
There are two issues or two key legacies. On the one hand, there’s politics as a legacy, what ensues from the weight of what came before, the weight of the victories of what came before over what is “new,” which therefore really isn’t that new. Democracy as a social practice that is completely structured and limited by what was left by this civil-military-economic “Process.” “Democracy is a lesser evil” for the true powers-that-be. Democracy was not the product of popular struggles, but the consequence of certain failures of the dictatorship after the social transformations had already taken place. The intention of democracy, as it was handed down, was, for Fogwill, a “turn against the appearance of things, without engaging the core essence of things.” This was the truth of the deep changes that have continued to the present day, which the dictatorship achieved through the way income was distributed, monopolies, social structure, and the speculative capacity of the major sectors of the economy—the flexibility of capital.
The second legacy is a more complex debate. Fogwill tried to thwart what he called “the horror show.” What might this be? The intentions of the state and literary “progressivism” to assemble “a teletheater to teach the new generations what will happen to anyone who transgresses the boundaries of permitted dissent.” What Fogwill was thinking is what Walter Benjamin thought sometimes, the idea that the question of “how can this have happened?” is also the consummation of defeat, the impossibility of thinking beyond defeat. The topics of horror, violence, justice are “ruminated upon,” not acted upon; they are expressed, but not put to the front.
For these two reasons, which at the same time are a diagnosis of the legacies of the post-dictatorship, Fogwill proposes “the unthinkable” as a method, as a stimulus, put into practice with an intellectual model condemned as “intolerable,” exorcized by official culture. This was his premise for “release” from this inherited trap. In this word, in this action of someone who sets themself free, who flees, along with the costs and the risks involved, we can see something of what Fogwill was.
The place from which he spoke was the terrain of the permanent search for the lucidity, not without periods of exaggeration or contradiction with respect to his own intentions. He seemed close to that Sartrean tenet that says the price of liberty is solitude, a solitude of thoughts, not one of readers or peers that may respect him. He spoke from a moving terrain, difficult to anticipate. To him, it was totally transparent. In this place, Fogwill saw the threads, or maybe they just appeared to him. The thing is that with certain phenomena, neither a critic nor anyone else can do anything about it; things, society, just come at you. One can only speak, diagnose, give one’s judgment—things happen regardless, obeying their own logic and paradoxes.
There’s an expression in Argentina that is usually said with a snide tone, but I think it could be more than that. At least I want to leave it here in its neutral form. It’s heard when someone is tired of an argument and says to the other person, “Well you always have something to say.” What does that even mean?
Translated by Slava Faybysh
Juan Laxagueborde, sociologist and essayist, was born in Buenos Aires in 1984. He teaches at the Universidad de Buenos Aires and the Universidad Nacional de Artes. He is editor of Segunda Época journal, and he was formerly editor of Mancilla journal. He writes in the Radar supplement of the daily Página/12. His latest book is titled Tres personas: Bignozzi - Cantón - Vivanco.
Slava Faybysh is a translator based in Chicago. He translated Leopoldo Bonafulla’s The July Revolution, Barcelona 1909 (AK Press), a first-hand chronicle of a weeklong rebellion and general strike followed by government repression, told from an anarchist perspective. His translation of I Want to Live My Life (1931), by Carmen de Burgos, a Spanish socialist feminist who was problematically writing about gender-identity issues, is forthcoming from Song Bridge Project in 2022.
In our August 2020 issue, we celebrate the work of women writers and translators in honor of Women in Translation Month, highlighting the work of Victoria de Stefano, Krina Ber, Rowena Hill, and Margara Russotto—four women united by the coincidence of emigrating to Venezuela and becoming renowned writers in Spanish. We also pay homage to a giant of Latin American letters, Rodolfo Enrique Fogwill, on the tenth anniversary of his passing, and we highlight the work of Mé’pháá writer Hubert Matiúwàa in our Indigenous Literature section. This #WITMonth issue is rounded out with exclusive previews of upcoming books from women translators and an interview with translator Annie McDermott, plus poetry, fiction, interviews, and reviews of fascinating new releases from across Latin America.
Cover Photo: Grupo Mondongo