Literature in the margins: a new canon for the XXI century? (1)
The second half of the XX
been a time noted for the appropriation of images and conventions
specific to mass
culture. Indeed, it has proven to be the completion of a process of
of popular forms initiated more than two hundred years ago. Culture can
longer be thought of as a totalizing system but rather a series of
in conflict, battling to attain legitimacy as privileged forms of
representation. Among them, mass culture has been one of the most
agents of crisis and destabilization for the categories used to think
art; it has effected fundamental changes in the very notion of art by
a multiplicity of aesthetic possibilities. In addition, the fall of
utopias coincided with the break of the opposition between consumerism
experimentation; in other words, the distinction between popular
as “pleasing and unproblematic,” and art. After the experimental
neo-vanguardist texts of the sixties one of the possible options became
reworking of a tradition that struggles to gain space in Latin American
and has produced a continuous game of contact with and distance from
vanguards usually taken as the tradition's antithesis. In fact, the
and development of popular forms in
This antagonistic play with tradition brings to mind the debate surrounding yet another dichotomy that sets the avant-garde against mass culture: these two terms, used as keys to many studies about camp and pop, constitute an exemplary summary of one of the classic methods used to read the differences between “high” and “low.” It may be precisely here where the present historical axis is evinced, when it is no longer possible to confront the codes of mass culture with the avant-garde. We must remember that Vattimo, in “The Death or Decline of Art,” indicates how historical avant-gardes are taken as point of departure to verify “a wider phenomenon of the ‘explosion’ of aesthetics beyond the institutional limits which are assigned to [them].”(2) A decisive factor herein is the impact of technology as spelled out by Walter Benjamin in his famous essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”(3) In other words, the media of technology enacted a radical modification of artistic practices which became more pronounced during the sixties, when certain expressions, such as pop art, underscored the weakening of the oppositional force and seized the revulsive capability and political intent inherent in the avant-garde. We are dealing then with a cultural phenomenon wherein the vanguardist gesture may be read through a process of mediative assimilation.
If critics agree that the avant-garde is no longer possible today, the aesthetics which since the sixties have turned to technological media and popular forms seem most able to bridge the gap between “high, experimental and politicized art” and “mass, consumerist and alienated” forms. And at the end of the XX century, when the contact between artistic forms and mass culture begins to be considered as part of a tradition, one may think of their interface as a space of dissolution for certain dichotomies, or of fusion, confrontation and debate of certain others; that is to say, a political space par excellance.
In every case, the contact with popular forms always implies a transformation, a distortion of the codes used; elements are subverted while genres, discursive and aesthetic practices, and levels of language merge. Texts engage in a contradictory movement: they approach mass culture and include it, but at the same time, establish a guarded distance from it. This link with “low” forms is sustained in the ambiguity of a relationship I have defined as simultaneous “seduction and betrayal:” there is a tendency to erase hierarchies and appropriate from the “low” only to reinstitute differences that distinguish the texts from those “margins.” Indeed, accepting that one is dealing with a literature that explores those “lesser” forms presupposes in some way the tacit recognition of a “center”, a “higher” culture from which all contact is performed.
This movement of appropriation produces a mobility of frontiers which are yet never erased; in every case we are dealing with a narrative that belongs to the literary system, out of which it is written—and read. As such, it enters into a permanent relationship with the canon in a search to replace it and occupy its space. “Low” or “lesser” forms constitute those practices that have not yet been incorporated into literature or are situated at its limits. They imply a changeable relationship, charged with tension, in which various modes of convergence can coexist. If a process of disqualification and exclusion has predominated, rejecting and omitting popular and mass forms from canonized culture, the literature considered here has also opened up a much more fluctuating space: The use of these forms always implies, in spite of restored distances, an acknowledgment and entrance into the system, functioning as a key space for the negotiation between cultures.
The literature that has searched its margins for new alternatives reproduces and quotes texts and genres belonging to mass culture, known for its “redundancy”; however, in its new emplacement, this redundancy generates something quite distinct from the simple comforting, alienating, and repetitive pleasure attributed to popular forms. The aesthetics of modernity have been very severe with those products of mass culture that provoke an alienation derived from their serial form. For instance, a police novel or a cowboy movie are both considered examples of preestablished models and, therefore, cannot even be judged as art. Far from “artistic creation,” they maintain a preordained schema and are, in Adorno’s words, the products of a “cultural industry.” Mass forms, formulas and repetition are associated with pleasure, and their escapism leads fatally into depolitization. If good literature is commonly defined by its capacity to break the codes to which it is subjected, then popular genres may never be able to share its space. Postmodern aesthetics propose, in turn, a reworking of the idea of repetition through the transformation of formulas and genres. The use of seriality in these stories generates other contracts with the reader which are in play between a recognition—“the regressive pleasure in the return of the expected”(4) with its consequent solution reduced to clichés—and a difference, the variation which deviates, transforms and distances itself from the formula.
This distance which operates, for example, between Luis Rafael Sánchez’s narratives and the same mass forms on which they draw, opens other alternatives of reading. Umberto Eco reminds us that both repetition and pleasure have been condemned by avant-garde aesthetics, especially by the neo-vanguardist movements of the sixties, which associate difficulty with the break from alienation, and entertainment with alienating comfort. However, with the beginning of pop art, when the differences between experimental art and mass art dissolve, the aesthetics of modernity make room for postmodernity, and a new perspective rises from which to consider enjoyment and consolation: consumerism and provocation are no longer irreducible oppositions. In Postcript to The Name of the Rose Eco revalues the concept of entertainment and recovers popular forms, adopting a “postmodern attitude” for the use of mass culture as “quotation”: “[...] quotation could be less escapist than the plot quoted.”(5) This is the point of inflexion from which one may think of a literature that appeals to consoling formulas while exercising on them a certain kind of conversion. A new contract with the reader is instituted which challenges him to simultaneously acknowledge the familiar and the innovations where difference lies.
The calculated use of quotes reflects a work of approximation and distancing, a contact which always involves a transformation; it is therefore a metalinguistic game in which quoting always recognizes an affinity while at the same time institutes a difference. The ironic distance implies a calculated metareflexive gaze, such as the gaze of Almodóvar's viewer who revels in the boleros and the camp in his movies with the knowledge that they respond to a quotation of codes; he or she neither “takes them seriously” nor disqualifies them. The link these texts propose is no longer resolved or explained by the notion of “consoling pleasure;” an appeal is made to the attraction of formulas, but other uses are elaborated: The self-conscious quote becomes a system of remittances to codes that do not assume any value judgment. Distant then from “high culture’s” scandalized disavowal but without the seriousness or innocence of mediated forms, a new alternative is designed to confront the mechanisms governing these narratives: they all appeal to the charm of formulas and seduce with the promise of a known pleasure, but postpone and deceive that promise by always transforming their codes at a key juncture. The space that engenders the reader's frustrated expectation is the site of difference between the texts and the mediated forms. A story like Kiss of the Spider Woman by Manuel Puig demonstrates that one may exploit the potential charm of formulas without complying with them, establishing a simultaneous “amorous and unfaithful” relationship with popular forms: these are integrated but only to mark their difference, which is the difference of the other culture. And it is in that space, which constructs a difference between expectation and deception, where a political reading becomes possible.
The narratives which
interest me belong to a period of time strongly dominated by mass
authors such as Manuel Puig or Luis Rafael Sánchez, and their
mediated culture, were already becoming canonical. They initiated the
I think of this production as
in which—beyond the most obvious differences—nets have been cast
and true constellations have been formed which connect Caribbean
with others in the Southern Cone or in
Perhaps one of the most notable networks in Latin American literature in the last thirty years is organized around the exploitation of camp and pop aesthetics. The stories by authors such as Luis Zapata or Ana Lydia Vega have become almost canonical and as such exercise an “authority” which invalidates any notion of marginality; the margin, the “low”, now inhabits the center. It could be said that these aesthetics provide the axis for the articulation of the texts: they turn to camp to construct a narrative that inverts its signs and questions all accusations of frivolity and depoliticization. It is thus a narrative which becomes political precisely through its use of “depoliticized” forms. This gesture of inclusion of vulgarity can most clearly represent the constant challenge proposed to “high literature” as well as the permanent contest to occupy its space. (6)
We are therefore witnessing the formation of a new canon; camp and pop have been particularly exemplary in this process because, while operating from a space “high” culture has greatly resisted (as it resists any manifestation considered in “bad taste”), they came to be dominating forms. Mass culture or consumerist formulas are quoted in these texts as metaphors for an aesthetic whose margins are always in dispute within an already exclusionary system. This self-representative exercise is also a sign of the new space conquered by this narrative. Self-reflection, where a quote refers to its own code, is only possible when the code can already be recognized as canonical and when a broad collection of texts can be read taking it as their point of departure.
The process of consolidation of this “new canon” achieves its completion in the narrative collected under the controversial and polemical but highly effective name of McOndo group. The stories of Alberto Fuguet (Mala onda; Por favor, rebobinar), (7) Sergio Gómez (Adiós Carlos Marx, nos vemos en el cielo), Edmundo Paz Soldán (Sueños digitales), or their anthologies (McOndo; Cuentos con walkman) offer aesthetics that best consolidate mass culture into the literary system. These narratives seem to bring to a close a long tradition of struggle, appropriation and resistance and can be seen as the product of a time when the presence of mass media has been effectively “institutionalized:” They are the culmination, at the turn of the century, of that long history of links with mass culture. Indeed, their wager on mediation serves as an attack strategy intended to open margins in order to gain ground and position themselves as canonical, to the extent that they have been accused of a total fusion with mass media that threatens to render them “unliterary.” However, I believe that they revisit and use numerous literary lines: they are the indisputable heirs of an imaginary which belongs to Puig, not in its precise contents, but certainly in the gesture that seeks, in a fin de siècle equivalent, the material with which to form new representations of the world. US films from the 1940’s, serials, radio theater, and middle class cultural clichés form the system upon which Puig’s narratives are assembled. Pop culture, rock, movies from the 1980’s and other audiovisual forms, and bourgeois rituals of the 1990’s perform the same function as the cultural imaginary of the “McOndo” texts.
A short story by Fuguet, “Más estrellas que en el cielo”(8) included in the anthology Se habla español,(9) indicates to what extent this process has been developed and accentuated. Subtitled “cortometraje,”(10) its opening scene at the bar of an American cafeteria remits us to many movies, but, most significantly, to Edward Hopper's oeuvre and his painting “Nighthawks,” a title that seems highly pertinent to the short story. With its artificial light and characters that evoke the film noir of the forties, the painting in turn seems to reproduce the scene of a movie. And in fact, the text stages this relationship with “an encounter” between Edward Hopper, Tim Burton and David Hockney: (11) film, painting, and painting which remits to film reproduce an “image” of literature.
“Cortometraje” reminds us of
those texts which Puig subtitled “serials” or “police
novels” and which are invaded by
Scenes that reproduce other
are at the heart of a literature that presents itself as artifice and
whose procedures specifically remit not only to the mediative, but to
“erudite” forms such as the nouveau roman. The narrator’s
indications: “Beyond, out of focus,
I see the disco shop” or “beyond
the frame” (“Veo más allá, fuera de foco,
la disquería;” “fuera de cuadro”) (13)
the game in the narratives of Pacheco, Leñero or Elizondo of the
seventies where the planes of “truth” and “fiction” are
blurred. A phrase like “Jennifer López picks up our plates”
(Jennifer López nos recoge los platos”),(14)
remits us both
to now canonical modes of description and definition which, in Ana
or Luis Zapata, appeal to comparisons with mass culture, and to the
games of mise en abîme characteristic of
experimental novels. Couldn't it effectually be Jennifer López
the script we are “reading?;” might it be: “Scene six, take
one. Extreme close-up inside Denny’s at night” (“escena seis,
toma uno. Cafetería Denny’s Interior/Noche. Primerísimo
Puig’s novels raised the problem of how to write literature incorporating cinematographic dialogues and myths; Fuguet’s story proposes a writing to translate images or constitute itself from images that are themselves already a translation and intersection of various mass and literary codes. We do recognize in Fuguet the same gesture of his predecessors: the quote of the mediative form constructs the narration. However, this gesture seems so canonized that the narrative displaces its focus to those artistic forms that have already assimilated and incorporated the products of that imaginary as in Hopper’s or Hockney’s painting or Burton’s film. This is how the text transforms into disenchantment the fascination Puig’s or Zapata’s protagonists had for the aura of film stars. Fuguet’s characters, failures of the system, reinstate “from within” the script, the scene, or the movie, the impossibility of mediative illusion, the desolation of defeat: as a result, the narrator discovers that the wager on Hollywood and American mediative culture has been futile because “there are no more stars in heaven” (“no hay más estrellas en el cielo”) as is proven before the words “The End” (“Fin”).
Unlike their predecessors, “McOndo” texts seem absolutely assembled through media culture; the “excess” in the challenging gesture to construe narratives with mediation is the only apparent point of cultural reference. The texts are a display of codes and signs from that culture and they themselves become a code, a sign—“McOndo”—that defies other literary forms already considered canonical (especially magic realism).(16) However, the narratives are also a compendium of erudite quotes and remittances to “high literature:” Sueños digitales,(17) by Paz Soldán, is a science fiction narrative with echoes of Philip K. Dick but also a postmodern electronic version” of The Invention of Morel (18) by Adolfo Bioy Casares, that in turn remits us to a short story apparently as distant as “The Vampire”(19) by Horacio Quiroga, published in the collection Más allá in 1935.
Sueños digitales explores every possibility of image reproduction; all of reality is, or is confused with, photography, television screens, computers, electronic games. The characters are involved with images in one way or another. This is when ambiguity and the confusion between the real and the artificial become exasperating; everything turns out to be simulacrum, montage, digital life and “magenta.” The expression “to digitalize reality”(20) could summarize the narrative and, in its turn, connect it to The Invention of Morel. The protagonist of Sueños digitales works by inserting and erasing the story of characters and scenes, accomplishing for others what the narrator of The Invention of Morel attains himself towards the end of his story: to form part of history and create a montage equivalent to the one that incites his admiration in films. Morel’s machine, an archive of images and producer of artificial phantoms in Bioy Casares’s narrative, finds its postmodern version in Sueños digitales’s computer, and Morel’s phrase, “My companions and I are illusions; we are a new kind of photograph,”(21) becomes the point of intersection for the three narratives, is valid for all three and reminds us of the phantom in “The Vampire,” a “hallucination in motion.” New types of photographs, forms “derived” from film, new modes of manipulation; these three stories revolve around three unattainable women: Nikki, with the nomenclature of a photographic camera and within whom everything is “possibly false,” is a replica in Sueños digitales of the character of Faustine in The Invention of Morel, a pale and unattainable shadow, double of the ghostly actress in “The Vampire.” The feminine shadow sets in motion the narrative and the always suicidal actions of the protagonists.
In each case, there is a quest to entrap the real, modify it, produce it or reproduce it from a machine, and the artificial is selected as the most perfect form of life. We are again at the heart of the debate about the media. Those machines that kill as they offer immortality (at least a certain kind of immortality), extensions of film or computers coded as science fiction, are the forms of a mediative culture that vampirize the real. It is not by chance that the title of Quiroga’s story is reiterated with Lestat,(22) the name of the computer in Sueños digitales. Vampirism, furthermore, enters into a reflexive relationship; the manipulator or inventor will always end up swallowed, erased by his machine. Therefore, life is the price one must pay for the illusion of immortality. To reproduce, manipulate, falsify, preserve: it is interesting how these texts, especially Paz Soldán’s novel, where it is most explicit, dramatize the central polemic of mass media. In Sueños digitales, these forms of transience par excellance, responsible for the loss of historic memory, state their essence as they exhibit their reverse: the possibility of erasing, by digitalizing images, the sinister past of a dictator easily identifiable. However, they are also the only possibility (as archive of negatives) to reconstruct the past in a future without hope, where, as in Bioy Casares and Quiroga, real life has been killed and replaced by images.
As The Invention of Morel before it, Sueños digitales summons in one space, in the reproduction of images, a utopian project which is also a totalitarian distopia (let us remember another novel by Bioy Casares, A Plan for Escape, with its island-prisons, one of which has a castle, an obvious Kafkaesque quote reiterated in the citadel where the protagonist works). Digital beings, dreams or chimeras, become nightmares and follow the same course of the “artificial phantoms” in the previous texts. Death is always the only exit awaiting the protagonists trapped by the images. If in Bioy Casares entering the ghostly story conjures a form of immortality, in Sueños digitales suicide (which inverts the end of The Invention of Morel by erasing images before people) moves one step further into a distopic resolution. No illusion survives, and if there is any possibility for memory to endure, it can only be found in the archive of negatives. It is interesting to observe the distance that mediates between the protagonist, who during childhood “used to cut magazine photographs” (“[se] pasaba recortando fotos de revistas”), making collages he labeled “sad photomontage” (“tristes fotomontajes”)(23) and Toto, the character of Manuel Puig’s Betrayed by Rita Hayworth, for whom the same activity represents the entrance into the imaginary and, consequently, into cinematographic illusion.
Sueños digitales, therefore, builds on an “erudite” tradition that questions from early on the presence (and effect) of the media, is disturbed by its “fatal results,” and attributes few alternatives for “salvation” to its capacity for historic memory. Crossed by lines which intersect cyberpunk literature and an impeccably “high and erudite” science fiction, it thus seems to contradict the “anti-literary” accusation which befalls the McOndo group.
McOndo’s stories have been seen as exemplary “postmodern” representations of mass culture and, as such, as depoliticized narratives whose only interest lies in their consumerism. However, the texts implicitly define the historic crossroads in which they take place: those hostile spaces of Por favor, rebobinar or Sueños digitales, the solitary individualism of subjects with their gaze fixed on the screen or listening to music isolated in their walkmans, design the landscape that lies beyond catastrophe. In the era following Latin American military dictatorships nothing is left to find or hope for. All utopian possibilities have been abolished: we are dealing with a world where individuals are powerless spectators. It is here where the stories advance another reading; the representations of these “empty” spaces, replaced by a mediated culture in the formation of experience, construct a figure which may be read as the political evaluation of an era. Isolation and refuge in virtual culture provide an escape from a dangerous world where it is no longer possible for anyone to see his or her reflection in the gaze of others. (24) In these narratives, the television screen or computer games (such as the images manipulated by the protagonist in Sueños digitales) allow us to “digitalize” reality and forget history but they also cancel all alternatives for escape.
McOndo stories may be read then as a hopeless and highly politicized representation of life in a space demolished by dictatorship. Through these texts, the media reproduce the contradictory role that has been assigned to them in debates: they are havens which secure the evasion of thought while simultaneously eliciting—and justly so—a reading of alienation. We may then consider this narrative as the result of a double strategy: on the one hand, it inherits the tradition that thinks of the link to mass culture as tension, appropriation and difference. At the same time, at the end of the century these texts can no longer confirm any distance from a culture that has invaded everything and is the access road to experience; this rapprochement has eliminated all possible hopes in mass culture. At this juncture, the world is a solitary space, undifferentiated and dangerous, where the only possible speakers are virtual and where mediative signs have become the last refuge to which one may retreat. Read from an Adornian perspective, these stories, which engage in apparent and deceitful depoliticization, are assimilated into the production of mass culture; however, they also conceal another reading whereby, with different strategies, they place themselves within that literary tradition that has politicized the stories through mass culture.
In the “McOndo” narrative, therefore, we witness the culmination at the end of the millennium of a network of affiliations, a textual chain reiterated throughout the century with gestures and strategies, appropriations and differences from mass and popular forms: an unsteady equilibrium underwritten by the attraction and desire to exploit their possibilities, but also by the need to secure distances. This game of complex ambiguities constantly restores the distinctions between “high” and “low” cultures; it exposes the impossibility of absolute fusion, the dismissal of hierarchies, and reminds us that all readings of cultural difference—including this reading—imply a gaze from another space. But at the same time, and this is where its fascination and political signification lie, the game can only be articulated with and through these unprestigious forms, incorporated in order to change and destabilize the frontiers of the cultural map. As the new century begins, these narratives propose themselves as a new canon whose greatest seduction is its constant questioning of every attempt at becoming fixed, of being confined within already defined spaces. With the unending pleasure of unstable equilibrium with which they enter the XXI Century, they occupy a dominant space and remind us that literature always defies what has already been consolidated and accepted as sacred and indisputable.
(1). Translated from
Spanish by professor
María de Lourdes Dávila. This essay may be taken as an
to my book Juegos
de seducción y
traición. Literatura y cultura de masas (Games of Seduction and
Betrayal. Literature and Mass Culture) [
(6). This tension is very evident in Luis Zapata's novels. El vampiro de la Colonia Roma (The Vampire of the Roma Colony), for example, postulates itself as a “border” narrative; its genre margins—in its dual meaning—install the narrative in a constant game of remittances between the center/canon and margin/countercanon.
(11). “We are in a Denny’s with aesthetic pretensions. Edward Hopper meets David Hockney with a twist of Tim Burton to add some flavor” (“Estamos en un Denny’s con pretensiones estéticas. Edward Hopper meets David Hockney con un twist de Tim Burton para darle sabor”), 113.
(16). In the prologue to McOndo, which may be taken as the group’s manifesto, the authors specifically situate themselves against and beyond magic realism, an aesthetic already accepted as canonical for Latin American literature, especially in the U.S.
Bioy Casares, La invención de
Morel, Madrid: Alianza, 1991. Translated into English
in The Invention of Morel and Other Stories (From La trama
(20). The image is defined as the “digital impact in the stagnant waters of truth” (el impacto digital en las aguas estancadas de la realidad;” 68) and the manipulation of images is a constant at “the hour of digital dreams” (“la hora de los sueños digitales;”238).
(23). “I used to spend all my time cutting photographs from magazines, I loved making collages [...] A sad photomontage. It doesn't compare [to digital images]” (Me la pasaba recortando fotos de revistas y me encantaba hacer collages [...] Un triste fotomontaje. Ni para comparar [con las imágenes digitales]”), 18-19.
(24). ‘[...] both looked at Pixel crouched over a forest of deeply saturated colors on the computer screen. They came closer; Pixel gabbled in a foreign tongue [...] Sebastian tried to get closer and lose himself in an embrace. However, motionless, he could not move one step, while his eyes wandered toward the lifeless computer screen.” (“Ambos observaron a Pixel agazapado sobre un bosque de colores supersaturados en la pantalla del computador. Se acercaron; Pixel farfullaba en una lengua extraña [...] Sebastián quiso acercarse y perderse en un abrazo. Sin embargo, no pudo mover un paso, y se quedó inmóvil, desviando los ojos hacia la pantalla apagada del computador.”) Sueños digitales, 225-228.
Amar Sánchez, Ana
María. Juegos de seducción y
traición. Literatura y cultura de
Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of
in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Illuminations.
Eco, Umberto. “Le Lacrime del
Corsaro Nero,” Il Superuomo di Massa.
to The Name of the Rose.
Fuguet, Alberto. Mala onda. Buenos Aires: Planeta, 1991.
___. Por favor, rebobinar. Buenos Aires: Alfaguara, 1998.
___. “Más estrellas que en el cielo.” Alberto Fuguet and Edmundo Paz Soldán, eds. Se habla español. Miami: Alfaguara, 2000.
___ and Sergio Gómez, eds. McOndo. Barcelona: Mondadori, 1996.
___. Cuentos con walkman. Santiago: Planeta, 1993.
Gómez, Sergio. Adiós Carlos Marx, nos vemos en el cielo. Santiago: Planeta, 1993.
Paz Soldán, Edmundo. Sueños digitales. La Paz: Alfaguara, 2000.
Puig, Manuel. El beso de la mujer araña. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1998.
___.La traición de Rita Hayworth. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1987.
Quiroga, Horacio. “Más allá,” Cuentos completos. Volume II, Ed. Carlos Dámaso Martínez, Buenos Aires: Seix Barral, 1997.
Vattimo, Gianni. “The Death or
Decline of Art,” The end of
Modernity. Nihilism and Hermeneutics in Postmodern Culture.
Jon R. Snyder,
Zapata, Luis. El vampiro de la Colonia Roma. México: Grijalbo, 1979.